How to Show rather than Tell in writing

What writer hasn’t heard the advice “Show, don’t tell.”  However, I have noticed that some people just use this as the advice itself.  As if saying to a new writer “show me, don’t tell me” is enough.

Not everyone will instantly understand and that’s why so many new writers ask about this key concept.

Title Image: how to show rather than tell in writing. Photo of a blank notepad surrounded by scrunched up papers

I think Showing rather than Telling is a pretty fundamental piece of writing advice and can really set writers apart.

New writers often fall into the trap of telling their story rather than showing it.  But if you are a new writer you are meant to fall into all these mistake pits – how else are you meant to learn and grow.

Show don’t tell is a very simple premise yet I have seen some new writers tie themselves in knots about it, unsure if they are doing one or the other! So let’s lead with an example.

Image: Paper pinned to a corkboard stating Don't tell me, show me

Example 1 – Tell

John entered the room, he was angry. He looked at Ruth.

This is telling.  You have just clearly told the reader that John is angry.  So we have an image of John and he’s angry.   But you haven’t painted a picture for the reader so there is a lack of connection.

Example 2 – Show

John stalked into the room, slamming the door behind him.  His narrowed eyes focused on Ruth.

Pretty obvious that they both state the same things in different ways.  John goes into a room and looks at Ruth.

The first tells you that, dropping in that “oh, by the way, he’s angry”, because you wouldn’t have realised that from the narrative.

The second doesn’t state he’s angry, it shows he is.  It shows how he reacts when angry. Anger, like all emotions, has physical manifestations.

Also from the second description, the reader is deeper in.  These descriptions can paint a better picture.  Suddenly the reader is hearing the sharp slam, feeling the reverberations of that slam through the floor.

If we have experienced any of this before, we can instantly contextualise it and pull our own experiences up to fill in the senses.

I guess the reader could project their own methods of being angry into this scene but then you lose the connection to the character.  If the reader normally gets quiet and subdued when angry this can remove the image of John’s fiery temper.

The Emotions have it

Most “showing” comes with the character’s emotional state.  This is the easiest way to pull your readers in.

Think about it – if you are happy or sad or lonely or angry, have you ever walked up to someone and said “I’m sad” or “I’m angry.”  Most likely not.

If you are angry, maybe you clench your teeth or ball your fists.  Maybe you gesture wildly and raise your voice.  Maybe you violently point to get your anger across and frown deeply.  Maybe you flush red and have veins throbbing on your forehead.

All this can be described in a scene and paint a more vivid image.

Different people are Different

Let’s just add to the concept of Show don’t tell.  So you know to show what is happening, show your characters are fatigued, in love, angry, frightened, grieving, numb, joyful, flirting etc

Do remember that everyone reacts differently.  Some angry people lash out with physical violence either on others or on inanimate objects, some scream and shout, others drop their voice and talk firmly, others just walk away unable to show such reaction etc.

Think about yourself, your family and your friends. The likelihood is that all of you show your emotions differently.  One of your friends may cry when she’s happy but be almost blank when she is grieving.  Another may laugh when nervous and scream when angry.

Don’t put everyone into the same emotional box.  Think carefully about each character, how they would react.  There is also the possibility that people react differently to different people.

If your character is a strong businesswoman maybe she yells when she is angry.  Now put her at home with an abusive husband and that strength vanishes to where she just holds tight to her anger and does not react at all.

Situations, environments, people all affect such things. These can add layers to your writing though can take a little work.  It comes down to really knowing your characters and getting under their skin (that always sounds so Silence of the Lambs!)

There should still be SOME telling

One reason I think new writers can get lost in the whole “Show, don’t Tell” advice is that its doesn’t refer to everything.  Narration needs to tell some things, but even this can create a mood.

Example

The second option was barely even a pathway.  The dirt road was covered in overgrown brush and rotting leaves.  Low hanging branches obscured the way and above the moon’s light could not penetrate the thick canopy, leaving it dark and treacherous.

This is an acceptable piece of narration, I have described the area telling what it looks like.  I didn’t need to show the leaves are rotting, I can just state it, I don’t need to show the branches snagging on people’s hair I can just state it.

In the end, this piece does show as well, it shows the atmosphere – that this pathway is less trodden, dark, that there are obstacles and it will be hard to navigate in the darkness so could be dangerous.

Start Small

If you are a new writer, my advice is to start small.  Whenever your characters are reacting emotionally to something, look at how to describe that without stating it.  This is the quickest way of getting used to Show, don’t Tell.

Spend time with your characters, learn their mannerisms, their quirks, their reactions.  Paint the image as a movie in your head.  Your characters should not be standing around saying “I’m angry” or “Well I am hurt by what you said”.

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Good luck with your writing, I hope this helps. If you like my tutorials do please follow this blog.

PS: Big apologies for not getting this uploaded until Saturday.  How typical, I just set myself up to publish on Friday’s and miss one!

That’s what happens when you and your partner are off work and playing Assassin’s Creed (in my case, extremely badly but apparently entertaining).

Happy writing

Ari

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4 thoughts on “How to Show rather than Tell in writing

  1. Pingback: How to write realistic Sex Scenes (pt.2) | Ari Meghlen – Writer | Blogger | Bad card player

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  4. Pingback: What you need to think about for awesome descriptions | The official site of Ari Meghlen

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