Understanding Show Don’t Tell

blurry photo of person looking across field.

In this month’s writing group, one of my fellow writers brought up that they were told they need to show more, the old show don’t tell writing rule.

While this rule is one hundred percent true, it also fails it’s own advice. It’s too vague to be helpful.

A lot of us have fallen victim to the show don’t tell advice. For me, this meant adding pages and pages that took my story off track.

The biggest problem with this advice is that it’s not clear to what it applies to. Not everything in the story needs to be ‘shown’. If you show everything your story may have unneeded scenes and be too wordy. There are a lot of times when telling or summing up is the better solution.

After reading lots of craft books and thinking on this subject, I’ve come up with my own way of using this. Here is my breakdown on how and when to show instead of telling.

Show so we can see

The best stories use clear language to help us visualize what the character is seeing. Otherwise, the reader will improvise. Have you ever read a story thinking it’s summer only to find out later that it’s winter? That may not sound like a big deal, but depending on what the reader has envisioned, a disruption in that picture could through them out of the story.

Example – Sally went to the fruit farm and picked fruit. This sentence is vague and can lead to multiple interpretations. Is it a strawberry farm? Blueberry? Raspberry? A winery?

Try this – Sally went to the orchard and picked a bushel of golden delicious apples. This provides a much clearer picture. Plus, it gives the added information of the season without having to explicitly tell us what season it is.

The key is specificity. Avoid generic words like fruit and tell us what kind of fruit it is, golden delicious apple.

You also want to avoid what I call opinion words. For example – she picked a beautiful flower. Who thinks it’s beautiful, you the author or the character? Will the reader think the same and envision the correct flower? Instead, tell us that she picked an iris. A blue iris is even better.

One more area to be cautious about are words that appear to be description, but only work if we know what it is relative to. For example, Sally drove past a tall building. This seems descriptive, but it could mean five stories high or twenty-four. It could be a storefront, warehouse, hotel.

Make sure you’re giving us the details we need to see.

Show so we can feel

Be descriptive in moments where you want us to feel what the character is feeling. Use sensory details. Instead of Sally was hot. Try Sally sweated. Instead of Sally was tired. Try Sally’s arms were like jelly. She set the box down on the sidewalk not able to carry it further.

Avoid using the word felt or other such words. In most cases you can get rid of it. Sally felt the sun’s rays warm her arm. Or The sun’s rays warmed Sally’s arm.

Show to add tension

Showing us lightening versus just telling us it’s storming will add tension. But you don’t have to put all of your details together. Pepper them in and then build on them to heighten the mood.

Sally is having a picnic by herself at a park enjoying the first warm day in spring. Dark clouds roll in. Sally debates leaving. Then she smells rain. She starts packing up. It gets darker. She packs up and walks fast toward the car. Then comes the lightening. Now she’s running.

You don’t have to describe everything all at once. Draw it out.

Tell when there is a lot going on

Sometimes showing means adding more detail. And as much as I love detail, it can overwhelm and take away from where you want the reader to focus. It can also lead the story on a tangent. Here are a few things to consider.

  • Don’t go into extra detail showing us things that aren’t relevant.
  • It’s okay to skip time.
  • You don’t need show and then go into detail in the next sentence. Pick one.
  • If you focus on everything, nothing is in focus.
  • Try mixing and matching. One part you tell, and then later (not in same paragraph) go into more detail to show.
  • Remember Checkhov’s gun. If you highlight it, it must go off.

It’s all about giving us the details, when we need them, so we see and feel what your character does when its happening in the story.

What writing tips about show don’t tell would you add? Which ones do you disagree with?

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