Showing, not Telling

“Show, don’t tell.”  Great advice for any writer and the advice that annoys me the most. Seriously, it’s irritating on many levels, not the least of which is that it is spot on in most cases.  The problem isn’t with the suggestion, but rather with the delivery.  The first writing workshop I attended that discussed this failed to offer any examples of what this looked like.  Instead of explanation and example there were vague threats like:

Your work will never be accepted if you don’t learn how to ‘Show and not tell.’

Great, not only did I not understand what it was, but now if I didn’t do it I’d be branded as an ignorant failure.

I’ve also had teachers who’ve taken their time to explain, shown examples and offered suggestions in my writing on how to achieve this.  Still, even with time and practice, it can be difficult to figure out what this means while your fingers are pounding away on the keys.

I will admit that it is something I tend to do by intuition rather than conscious thought.  I tend to feel my way through a poem or story and show where I think appropriate.  There are a few things in my mind that are triggers.  Some of the things I look for are emotions, the verb to be (is, was, etc) and simple nouns, like “tree” or “fence.”  These are areas where I am often guilty of telling rather than showing. I am also on a campaign to eliminate the use of the word, “very,” in my writing, but that’s for another post.

Emotions can be easy to show.  For example:

Bob was happy with the new car.  Could be rewritten: Bob smiled as he closed the door, smelling the new car smell just before he turned the key and the powerful engine roared to life.

Likely, I’d add a couple of more sentences to fill that out but you get the idea.

The verb to be (is, are, was, am, etc) is another trigger for me.  For example: Bob is a doctor.

Well isn’t that nice and boring?  Think about what a doctor looks like and acts like.  What do doctors say? How would you know one if you saw one?  Now, I’d like you to write two or three sentences showing me that Bob is a doctor.

I’ll give you a minute…

Here’s what I came up with:

Bob brushed a bit of lint off his white lab coat and pulled the chart out of the rack on the exam room door.  It was Mrs. Smith again, still complaining about her back.  He put on his best bedside smile and turned the handle saying, “Betty, let’s look at those x-rays I sent you to get and see what we can do.”

Or something like that.

Sometimes a simple noun, like “tree” or “car” needs more description around it to truly inform your reader what you mean.  Think of the word tree.  What image is in your mind?  Draw a picture of it.

I was thinking of the tall California coastal redwoods along the trails I like to hike.  Were you thinking the same tree?  Or were thinking of that maple tree just down the street?

One time I tried that little exercise with a group of software engineers.  Most told me about trees they grew up with: maple, pine, magnolia and cherry.  One engineer surprised me when he said, “I was thinking of a file directory tree on my computer.”  Your readers have the uncanny ability to interpret your words in ways you didn’t intend.  When it matters what kind of tree your writing needs, you have to be specific and show me what’s in your mind or I’ll be thinking computers while you’re writing about leaves.

Or sometimes, just telling me is okay.  Showing generates a lot of words and sometimes to move the plot along faster and maintain the story’s pace it’s okay to just say, “Bob sat under the maple tree.”  The question you need to ask is, “how important is that tree?” If it’s just a prop, tell me it’s there.  If it’s important that Bob be at that tree for a specific reason, show me why.

Now, let’s again think about that sentence with Bob sitting under the maple tree.  If you were a movie director, how would you film that?  What would it look like on a movie screen or as part of a TV show?  Movies, television, plays and other visual forms are all naturally about showing.

When you write about Bob and the maple tree, write it as though you were seeing it through the lens of a camera and show me the richness of the green leaves, the smell of new-mown grass, the slight rise of the hill, the cooling summer breeze, his shoes tossed aside and his smile as Betty slowly sits down beside him.

It takes practice, but you’ll get it.
Keep writing,


19 thoughts on “Showing, not Telling

  1. Reblogged this on Andrew's View of the Week and commented:
    Here is my latest post over at Today’s Author. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  2. Love the story of the tree exercise. Explains the problem perfectly and why a writer must describe well enough to put the reader into the scene.

  3. Then, of course, there’s showing the meaning of clothing rather than merely describing the Dockers. That’s truly top notch.

  4. Much better explanation of show and tell writing. Thanks Andrew.

  5. Brilliant. It definitely gave me much to think on. Thanks for the schooling Andrew.

  6. Great explanation. It’s true, most people that give you the critique don’t offer an alternate way of conveying the message.

  7. I think the real benefit of showing rather than telling is that it leaves room in the mix for the reader to feel their own feelings about the story you want to tell. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Helpful. Thank you.

  9. As I write my rough draft, I repeatedly forget to ask the question: How do you know? I end up with umpteen ‘to be’ verbs scattered everywhere in the scene. Now that I’ve gotten the chance to read the question here in your post, maybe, just maybe my pea-brain will remember to ask. Thanks 😉

    • I do save some of those questions for the editing phase of writing. Sometimes it’s easier at that stage to ask the questions. When I’m writing a rough draft, I am just trying to get the basics in place. Keep writing.

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