“Show, don’t tell!”
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this mantra many times. But what exactly does this mean? Is it really that important to know? Will it make you a better writer? How does one show their story rather than just tell it?
Today, we’re going to take a look at this mystical “Show, Don’t Tell!”
How do we show a scene in our writing? The famous Mark Twain quote on the subject goes something like this: “Don’t just say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream!”
An online writing site breaks it down as simple as possible: Showing in writing happens when three writing traits come together to paint a picture in a reader’s mind: idea development (choosing memorable details), voice (conveying emotion, mood, and tone), and word choice (choosing verbs and adjectives that are memorable).
But what is the difference between telling and showing? Description. Showing is giving vivid details of the scene being described. Showing allows the reader to feel as if they’re seeing it play out right before their eyes. It is creating the visual rather than just telling readers what the character is doing.
Here are some examples:
Bob walked into the room he wasn’t supposed to enter and sat on the chair. This would fall under the category of telling. I am merely telling what Bob has done.
Showing what Bob has done sounds more like this: The old floorboards complained beneath Bob’s weight, threatening to reveal his presence in the forbidden room. Even the creaky old oak rocking chair colluded against him, promising to tell on the boy.
Another example of telling: Jimmy turned the car onto the lane leading into Tockett’s Wood. Telling is often boring and lifeless.
But here’s a better way of showing this same scene: Jimmy wrestled the shiny Ford onto the lane cutting right through Tockett’s Wood, out where old Mavis Tockett once had a house. Nobody went back there much anymore. Wasn’t anything but trees and what remained of a cabin.
Telling: An old woman sat in a wheelchair.
Showing: The shriveled husk of an old woman slumped like a boneless entity in a worn wheelchair.
Writing is as much about painting a picture as anything Van Gogh or Picasso ever did. For writers, description is our brush and words become our paint. We want our readers to see the scene as it plays out on the pages. Telling doesn’t allow for that.
Imagine being in the bank as a robbery occurs. You are in position, not only to see the perpetrator, but to observe the crook. Observation is key to showing. Sure, he had blond hair and blue eyes. Maybe even wore a baseball cap.
But we can do better.
A blond man with a slight limp. His hat, set at an angle, concealed a scar that ran the length of his forehead. He spoke with a distinctive southern drawl. Georgia maybe—or even Carolina Southern. The tattoo on his left wrist resembled a prison do-it-yourself splash of ink—which could mean he’s already done time.
Showing is all about description and observation. We use it in our narrative voice, our characters dialogue, and even in POV. You may write a scene in one character’s POV. But later, as another character is re-telling events from that earlier scene, the second character may have more to add to the original scene. He/she may have observed things the first character didn’t see. This can be used to introduce new plot elements to your story.
Showing a scene—rather than telling readers about it—allows the writer to bring that scene to life.
Here are a few more examples of showing versus telling:
Telling: The old man appeared confused.
Showing: Hazy irritation mucked up the old-timer’s gaze.
Telling: Chance was frustrated. He stood up and put his hands in his pockets.
Showing: Frustration yanked Chance to his feet; his hand took cover inside his jacket pockets.
Telling: His mind was occupied on something I knew nothing about.
Showing: He chewed on some idea or other that I wasn’t privy to, gnawing away as if there were seeds or pulp needed separating from the truth of the matter.
It’s all about coloring your story with description and feelings. Anybody who chooses to read your story will understand feelings of anxiety, joy, anger, or melancholy. As human beings, we all experience these moments. Don’t just say: Bob was angry. Show us how angry Bob really is by recalling that time in your own life when you were at your angriest. How did you really feel? What went through your mind at that point? How did your body react to the stress that comes with real anger? Did your muscles tense up? Did your teeth grind, bringing an ache to your jaw? Were your fists clenched, ready to administer a beating to the object of your anger? Our own experiences can act as a colorful palette for the descriptions we wish to paint into our stories.
The main thing in writing is to entertain your readers. You don’t want to bore them. When boredom sets in, the reader is not likely to continue with the story. But don’t overthink it, either. Just write it. And always have fun with the process. A good story will make an author immortal. Just ask Mark Twain.