In Writing–Show, Don’t Tell

If you read any how-to books on writing, one of the first rules given is show, don’t tell.  Easier said than done.  I still try to rush scenes at times and just tell the reader something that, in my mind, is small so that I concentrate on something that I feel is important.  And I get caught every time.   A critiquer inevitably circles that part of my story and writes “Telling” in the nearest margin.

If you’ve written long enough, you see scenes in your mind, and that’s how you write them–what you see, smell, and listen to.   A new writer joined our group, though, and “show, don’t tell” was one of the hardest things for him to learn.  He knew the stories he wanted to tell and all of the important plot points along the way, but he asked for help in bringing those scenes to life.

It always amazes me how much difference “showing” makes.  It puts the reader into the story instead of pushing him aside as an observer.  Showing allows the reader to live the story along with the book’s characters.  If the advice “space equals emotion” is true, a big scene needs to be big–not one line or one paragraph, sometimes not even one page, but enough space to give it weight.

The author doesn’t say, “When Jake walked into the room, someone tried to shoot him.”  Instead, the author shares the details of scent, sound, and emotions, so that the reader smells, hears, and sees what Jake does.

Jake pulled to the curb in  front of the house.  An overhead light gleamed in a back room.  Shadows swallowed everything else.  The driveway sat, empty.  Jake checked the address Heath had given him.  With a nod, he started up the sidewalk.  Worn porch steps creaked underfoot.  Should he ring the doorbell?  Why was the house dark?  He reached a finger toward the buzzer, hesitated, and pulled on the screendoor instead.  It creaked open.  He turned the doorknob and pushed.  The door swung wide.  Even in the gloom, he could make out the body lying on the living room carpet.  He grabbed for his cell phone when a shot rang out.  Wood splintered beside him.  Jake turned and ran.

Telling took one sentence to say what a paragraph showed, but telling doesn’t evoke emotions.  Showing does.  Ultimately, that’s what fiction is all about–grabbing a reader’s attention and letting him live vicariously through a character.  And to do that, a writer has to “show, don’t tell.”  Oh, and active verbs help too.  But that’s another matter.

8 thoughts on “In Writing–Show, Don’t Tell

  1. I must confess, this is one of my many problems. Editors reproached me precisely that. And I am trying hard to …relax…and let the action follow its course. I think it has a lot to do with being scared.


    1. Two friends of mine were journalists before they turned to fiction, and “show, don’t tell,” was hard for them. It’s a transition from reporting a scene to bringing the scene to life in the reader’s mind. But your writing is so visual, your transition should be easy.


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