Show, Don't Tell

"Nice, Tom, but try a little more showing and a little less telling".
"Show, Don't Tell," has to be one of the oldest pieces of advice in writing. I'll bet there are hieroglyphs from ancient Egyptian writings that loosely translate to that phrase. But what does it really mean?

When I'm reading a story, I often lose interest if the author presents facts that seems to stop the flow of the story. You can tell me that a person is happy or sad, short or tall, bald or blessed with a full head of blazing red hair-- but if those descriptions slow the story or stop the mood you've engaged me in - then you're telling me something instead of showing me.

Here's an example.

I could describe a cluttered attic by listing all its contents. Or I could invite you (the reader) to "step into" the attic as I (a character in the story) stumble over boxes, catch my sweater on an old hanger, step on a paper bag with half of a discarded banana inside, etc.  The second description involves action. It moves the paragraph along, which moves the page, which moves the chapter and so on, and so on.

Using some of the five senses can help describe the scene as well. I'll bet that long-neglected banana smells awful. And, perhaps the character can walk into a large, dust covered cobweb... with her mouth slightly open. That would surely provoke a funny response and is more immediate than simply writing that there were cobwebs hanging everywhere. 

There are countless books on writing that discuss show, don't tell, as well as many blogs and articles on the internet that do the same. It's always a good idea to check out a few for good examples of how to sharpen our writing skills. And, there is a good reason why show, don't tell appears on many lists of writing advice. It helps keep stories fresh and moving.


Ew ew ew on the cobweb-into-the-mouth! And it's so much fun to watch a scene really come alive when I revise it for showing/telling. Those details DO keep stories fresh and moving, even if we have to slow down to write them.

I agree, Beth. Sorry about the cobweb bit!

I agree, Beth. Sorry about the cobweb bit!

I agree, Beth. Sorry about the cobweb bit!

There's nothing worse than slow moving stories!

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