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Show and Tell

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Mon Jan 05, 2009 11:27 am
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CastlesInTheSky says...

Nearly anyone who's ever posted a piece on this site has heard the infamous advice, YWS's pet peeve: “Show, don’t tell.”

Those three words can be incredibly frustrating to any writer. You might not know exactly what “show, don’t tell” means. Or you might believe that you are showing when in fact, you’re really telling.

"Telling" can actually be useful. Yes, that's right. It can sometimes even be necessary. But the problem is that most people don’t realize how vital “showing” is if you want to write an effective story, essay, even a blog post. Showing allows the reader to follow the author into the moment, to see and feel and experience what the author has experienced. Using the proper balance of showing and telling will make your writing more interesting and effective.

“Okay, I get it,” you’re thinking. “But how do I do it? How can I really 'show' in my writing?"

I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips I follow that will help make your writing more vivid, alive, and interesting for your prospective reader.

:arrow: 1. Use dialogue

This is probably one of the first things I consider when trying to bring more showing into my writing, and it is also one of the easiest. Dialogue in a story allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were really in it. It prevents those long, info-dump paragraphs that sound like the writer is summarising the story instead of giving us the fresh version. For example, instead of telling the reader that your villain is scheming, they can see it for themselves:

“I have devised a cunning plan," Sir Evilness cackled, rubbing clawed hands together, "I have the feeling it's going to be quite...effective."

Dialogue can give your reader a great deal about character, emotion and mood as well as giving your readers insight into the amazing worlds revolving inside your head.

:arrow: 2. Use sensory language

For a story to be incredible, readers need to fully experience what you're writing about. They need to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around them. Don't give the reader huge info-dumps summarising events in your stories. Stop and smell the roses, as they say. Don't give us exposition, summarization, and description. Try to use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

:arrow: 3. Be descriptive

You probably remember the days you got taught how to use adjectives and adverbs in primary school. In critiques, you often get told to be more descriptive. In those instances, it is very easy to go back to those things we were thought. However being descriptive is more than just looking up purdy adjectives in your Oxford Concise and inserting them. As writers, we should carefully select the right words, see which ones fit better and ameliorate the flow, as well as converying your meaning by using them sparingly.

:idea: The following example is from a short story I wrote.

Telling: A girl was standing on a hill, looking at the bay and waiting for the sunset to happen.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with that sentence. It gives the reader some basic information. However, it doesn't create a visual image. Compare that sentence with this:

Showing: She stood upon the hilltop, the dry-gold grass whispering against her calves as she looked out to the bay. In a few minutes, the sun would begin to set behind her, and she would be able to see the orange-gold and pinks reflected in the clouds and in the deep waters of the eastern beach. She knew for a fact that it would be beautiful- she had been coming to this spot to watch the sunset since she was a child, and it never ceased to amaze her just how spectacular it was every time.

The second example takes that basic information that we need to contrust a sentence, and paints a picture with it.

:!: Warning: When using description, it’s important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you can end up with what I call a “police blotter” description. For example:

She was short and skinny with blue eyes. She was wearing a pink dress, a green cord jacket and trainers.

:arrow: 4. Be specific, not vague

Some people think that using vague, nebulous abstractions makes them sound more intellectual and poetic, but all it does is detract from your original meaning, as well as frustrate the reader. We want to get to the flesh of your story, not get distracted by a mist of meaningless words. Use concrete words - words that you can feel and visualise. A rose, a stone, a clock are all concrete words. Avoid from throwing in a string of concepts - Love, hate, passion. Instead, show how these concepts apply to your writing. You're not banned from using them - but mix the concrete.

For example, instead, “He felt anger, fury, wrath,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader. For example, 'His fist crashed down on the table, making the glasses wobble. Spittle emerged from his mouth and his jugular veins bulged with the effort of containing himself. Pacing across the room, it was all he could do not to scream.'


Hopefully, this article and these four basic guidelines have given you a better idea on how to show instead of tell. Try to apply them to your writing next time someone gives you that advice without an explanation, and you'll see pleasing results.
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Mon Jun 22, 2009 9:52 pm
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chasingcolts21 says...

This is actually pretty great. :D
I don't think I do it a lot, but I just read a piece with telling, not showing, so next time, I'll point 'em to this article. xD
"We would accomplish many more things if we didn't think of them as impossible." Vince Lombardi

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Wed Dec 16, 2009 7:37 am
Durriedog says...

Thankyou! *I have issues* :D
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Wed Jan 13, 2010 7:36 am
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Maddy says...

Aaah, so I see now what they mean by "Showing and telling". :) This is great!
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Fri Feb 19, 2010 2:41 am
shineondiamondeyes says...

THis has been really helpful. Thanks so much!
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Sat Mar 13, 2010 7:22 am
AspiringAuthorA..M. says...

Aw yes, I have heard this on several occasions. The thing is, for a while I couldn't tell the difference. :lol:
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Sat Apr 03, 2010 9:01 pm
Ikafe says...

:!: :!: This is a realy helpful article, Now I know what 'show, don't tell' means. And I'm totaly going to it in my stories. :wink:
:arrow: Ikafe :arrow: :P
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Wed May 19, 2010 1:38 am
JaneThermopolis says...

Very helpful article. I admit, I'm sometimes more of tell person than show. This info is really going to help my writing! Thanks!
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Wed Jun 01, 2011 10:48 am
iampaulop says...

Thank you very much! It's going to help me a lot on my latest work ! :) I hope I can apply what I have learned!
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Sun Aug 28, 2011 3:32 am
Twinkle4ever says...

Oh, I see now. So that's what it really means. Well, thanks for that. It'll definitely help.
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Sun Dec 21, 2014 7:05 pm
FireBird99 says...

I was directed to this link, probably for a good reason. I am really glad that I took the time to read this. You hit everything right on the spot. Thank you so much, I truly believe this will help my writing now and in the near future.

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Tue Jul 16, 2019 12:42 pm
Awru says...

Wow!Thats was super Helpful.Thank u sooo much
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