Show, Don't Tell -- What Does It Mean?

This week, we're talking about commonly-used terms in writing critique.

Show, don't tell. Purple prose. Episodic.

I'm going back to Show, Don't Tell, which Donna blogged about on Monday, because for me, this was one of the hardest lessons to learn. And I'm going to try to SHOW you, not TELL you, what Show, Don't Tell really means.

Let's take, for example, a character--Francine--who is a writer, and under deadline pressure for her next writing assignment. Let's also say that she's going on book tour for the following month, leaving her family, her kids, and possibly fighting off a cold.

I am going to tell you now that this writer is stressed.

Francine is stressed.

Do you feel that? No. Why? Because "stressed" is a word that tells. We know what it means. We've all felt stress, and maybe we can marshal a little sympathy for old Francine, but I don't feel her stress, and thus, I don't really care.

How about this: Francine sat at her desk, her back and wrists sore from yesterday's twelve-hour writing session. She took a sip of weak, watered coffee and checked the time. 5 a.m. Only six hours until she had to hit send to her editor. Three more hours and she'd be on a plane across the country. She pulled up the file on her computer, scrolling quickly to the chapter she'd only just roughed in. She had to pack. She had to kennel the cat. Her head pounded with a pressure headache. She reached for the bottle of cold medicine under stacks of scribbled post-it notes. Could she afford to take it and be groggy?

OK. So I wrote that, like, super fast. It's no great display of writing, but you get the picture. We are IN Francine's stress with her. Right? We are shown her world, her concerns, so we feel her stress.

Novelist Michael Knight says this of showing emotion in writing in his book Naming the World:

How does a writer generate emotions? Imagery and action.... the reason we show rather than tell, the reason we dramatize in the first place--is that emotions are generally much more complicated than happy or sad. In a good story, the character's response, that original and particular individual reaction, is the way he feels. It's the only possible way to make clear something that's more intricate than adjectives and adverbs.

Knight recommends two exercises for those who want to practice Show, Don't Tell.

1: Describe the view from a window--bedroom, barroom, bus, wherever--as seen by a character who has just received some very good or some very bad news. Have some specific news in mind, but don't even hint at it in the exercise... The object is to give the reader a sense for a character's internal life by relying on meaningful imagery alone.

2: Write a scene, lots of dialogue, lots of body language, lots of concrete detail, and so on, in which one of the characters is keeping a big-time secret. She's pregnant. She's got cancer. Don't mention the secret in the scene. Instead, focus on how keeping such a secret affects your character's behavior, how he or she reacts to the environment and the other characters.

Photos can also be great prompts to practice showing. I posted the one above because it's a reminder to me that emotions are complicated. Moments are often layered with emotions. That photograph, aside from being dead sexy, is about much more than a simple whisper. There's a sensual nature to it--to her--but he's turned away. Why? Because he doesn't want to hear? It makes me want to write to show the feeling, rather than to just call it intimate, or sweet, or romantic.

Showing, or dramatizing a scene, an emotion, a place, should be done in only the most pivotal, critical parts of the story because, as Donna said, it is so space-consuming. If Francine's stress is not vital to your story, if she's not an important character, if her emotional state doesn't figure in significantly, then go ahead and call her stressed and move to the parts where you make us readers feel.

There. Didn't I tell you I'd show you?


Show don't tell is definitely one of those critiques that I often see scrawled along the margins in blood. Okay, so it isn't blood, but there's a whole lot of it and the poor papers look like they've been stabbed by a psycho who thought more stabs meant more love.

Uh, what was I talking about again?

Angela, lol. I feel you. Critique can definitely feel like a bloodbath!

Show, Don't Tell has been following me around since high school, when I didn't think it was important to understand the difference. But knowing the difference has also helped me as a reader (and only for writing as a hobby). I am now aware of authors' work being one or the other and I often hear my Senior Ap English teacher's voice in my head saying, 'they're not showing, they're telling!'

But when I come across authors who SHOW so eloquently that I forget I'm sitting at home or at work (don't tell my boss) and I look up and am surprised when I don't see the characters sitting next to me, I am able to fall in love with their story. Even if it is about a stressed out Francine! If she's stressed and it's vital to the story, I am there with her, feeling exhausted, getting worried about her deadline, and saying, 'NO don't take the medicine! It might change your writing style!' That's when I know I'm hooked.

Great post! Thanks for sharing :)

Thank you, Sallie. I love that moment, too, when you are so transported that real life fades away. It's magical!

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers