Showing: How Not To Tell

by | Mar 22, 2013 | Prose and Cons | 0 comments

Everything you ever read about writing advises you: “show, don’t tell”. It’s great advice as far as it goes. You don’t want to lecture to your reader, you want them engaged, seeing and feeling things based on the descriptions you give them to work with. What most sources don’t do it help you beyond that simple bromide to give you a real understanding of what you need to do to write that way.

How to Spot “Showing”

This is the biggest key to the whole deal. If you can’t identify when you do this, you’ll be hard pressed to change your habits.

Here’s a couple tricks to help you out, especially those of you who’ve seen a lot of courtroom dramas:

Leading the witness: The thing you want to look out for is drawing a conclusion for the reader. I might think about the mood of a character and tell the reader that he’s angry. That’s a judgment call though. I know he’s angry because I envision him that way, but what is it that I envision? He’s swearing, stomping around, red-faced, etc. – those are the things you need to convey to the reader, not the resulting conclusion you draw from those things.

Hearsay: Another thing to look out for it giving your reader secondhand information. While it may be technically correct information, it’s better to use in-narrative vehicles to convey what you want the reader to know. Succinctly outlining facts is fine for journalism, but you want your fiction to feel more alive. Instead of telling the reader that everyone in the department is afraid of the new police commander, have them all turn away and look busy as he passes, or have one character whisper to another: “I heard he fired three officers his first week at his last assignment”.

The Bag of Tricks

The way to fix these problems is to go to the root. Instead of conclusions and summaries, you need a lexicon of “shows” to substitute. It’s far more likely that you want the reader to know that someone is angry than that you care about the person’s facial expressions; the latter is just the means to that end. Rather than spoon-feed your reader emotions and conclusions, you need to come up with mannerisms, expressions, and gestures that convey the same point. It’s more work, but with practice you can convey much more subtlety that by dumping complicated feelings under single-word adjectives like “angry”


Telling: Bob was so furious that he didn’t know what to say.
Showing: Bob tightened his fists as he paced. He would unclench his jaw long enough to open his mouth as if to speak, only to shake his head and resume stomping about.

Telling: Judy could not have been more delighted with her gift.
Showing: Judy unwrapped the package slowly, casting sidelong glances at me as she worked. The smile that hinted at her lips blossomed into a toothy grin and she giggled as she saw the picture of us playing together in the snow when we were five.

Telling: Reading the note left Jim frightened.
Showing: As he read the note, Jim’s hands began to shake. He stuffed it into a desk drawer and slammed it shut, then stared out the window for a long while. He started drinking again that day.

Telling: Ron’s parents began to worry about him.
Showing: “Ron, you know you can talk to us about anything,” his father said, putting a hand on Ron’s shoulder. His mother smiled at him, but it looked fake; her lips curled up but her eyes just looked limp.

Telling: The city of Zermot had fallen on hard times.
Showing: As they rode into Zermot, what struck them first was the emptiness of the streets. What had once been a bustling trade city now lay half deserted, with boarded up shops and not a foreigner in sight. The few locals roaming the streets wore threadbare clothes.

As you’ll notice, all the “showing” versions are longer, but more evocative. It’s the price you pay (in word count) for giving your reader a better view of what is going on. Over time and through habit, you’ll default to thinking in terms of showing, developing an array of imagery and mannerisms that convey the emotions you want your reader to see.


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