Sometimes, I think that “Show. Don’t tell.” adage is something writers and writing teachers throw around to seem knowledgable in front of folks who are just starting in the writing world. It can really easily be a way of shutting people down or establishing some sort of misguided hierarchy.
But despite the way it’s used, “Show. Don’t tell.” is still sound writing advice. Here’s how I make use this principle in my writing. (You can find LOTS of perspectives on this writing tip, so don’t hesitate to Google around and read other writers’ ideas.)
How I Define “Show. Don’t Tell.”
First, I prefer the expression, “Show twice or three times as much as you tell.” Telling – explaining the meaning and importance of something, “extrapolation” – is an important part of writing. It gives the reader access to the inner thoughts of a narrator or character. It provides context for a poetic image or metaphor. It gives perspective to the facts of a memoir. So telling is crucial for good writing.
Show, in contrast to telling, is the way we use description, dialogue, setting, and characterization to create images, sounds, scents, feelings, and tastes in the minds of our readers. When we show how something was, we hold back our interpretation, our analysis, our extrapolation about that experience, object, person, or moment and give our attention to capturing our subject as wholly as words will allow.
So when I think of “Show More; Tell Less,” I’m suggesting that we need to put the bulk of our time into creating the subject as completely as we can before we begin to “make meaning” out of what we are showing to the reader.
5 Ways to Know You may be Telling Too Much
- Measure out your “show vs. tell” ratio. In a workshop with Hope Edelman once, she suggested that we should do two-thirds show and one-third tell, and I thought that was really good wisdom. This guideline can help us if we realize that we have spent the bulk of a piece explaining what it means instead of using description to establish the subject for the reader.
A note here – some genres (fiction, poetry, for example) rely far more on show than on tell, and some writers choose more tell than show as a matter of style. This suggestion is just that, a suggestion, a guide, a touchstone. It’s not a rule. So do you.
- Look for words that are abstract concepts. If your piece talks a lot about “love” or “rage” or “melancholy,” then you may be relying too much on “tell.” These terms are hard for a reader to grasp. I mean, we hopefully all know our own experience of love, but love is such a broad thing just in form let alone in experience that simply using that word does not help your reader get closer to the experience, moment, or emotion you are hoping to capture. Instead, look for ways to show what love looks like – a gesture, a scene, a phrase, a facial expression. SHOW what love looks like in that moment rather than telling us it’s love.
- Consider your use of scenes. Scenes are an effective way to convey a memory, a moment in a piece of fiction, or even a powerful emotion in a poem. A scene is simply the creation (or recreation) of a moment or series of moments using setting, dialogue, and description. A scene is showing, and thus, it’s more powerful. For example, I could tell you that the sun is shining here today, and it feels really nice on my face. Eh, that’s something of the experience. But if I show you the rays of sun coming through the slats in my dining room chair, if I describe the way I’m having to squint to see and how my skin is getting a tiny hint of that sun-warmed feeling I used to get by the community pool when I was eight, then, you are seeing me experiencing the sun, not just hearing about my experience. Think about scene as direct experience and tell as second-hand experience. The first is always going to be more powerful.
- Evaluate your use of the five senses. In a piece of writing that is rich in “show,” the five senses are a crucial part of the description. Rather than relying only on sight, which is the default of most sighted writers, we need to go into the way things feel in a scene, the way the air smells, the taste of her tongue when she is afraid. We need to study how a character might experience “sound” if he were deaf or the way a junco experiences the feel of snow on her feet. The five senses give us a panoply of description to draw from, and our work as writers is to train ourselves to use them in our showing.
- Look at the location of your “tell.” Finally, studying where in your piece you begin to “tell” can give you a clue as to whether or not you are relying too heavily on it. If the tell comes early in the piece, then maybe it’s too soon, unless of course you’re doing that age-old literary thing of revealing the ending before it begins . . . but even then, be careful. That takes rich skill that many of us don’t have. Rather, often the telling comes after the description – perhaps at the end of a scene or chapter, near the final lines of a poem. That way, the reader experiences the moments and characters of the story before being asked to find meaning in that. That is, after all, the way we experience life – the meaning coming after the moment. Just be mindful: you’re not writing a college essay here with a formal conclusion (unless of course you are). Rather, you’re leaving the reader with something to consider, so too tidy a tell at the end can feel, well, false.
One final thing to consider here: it is far easier to show something that you haven’t already figured out. If you already know why that moment was so painful or why you just love cosmos in the summer or why your character absolutely loathes hats, then it’s easy to slip into tell and explain rather than show. So explore the why of your work as you write. You don’t have to know where you’re going, just the question you’re exploring.
What writers do you love who show really well? What do you struggle with in show vs tell?