Show, Don't Tell by Rusti Lehay

Show, Don't Tell by Rusti Lehay

Everyone taking a writing course has heard the phrase, Show, Don’t Tell.
It can grate on a person. Personally, I don’t worry about it anymore. I say that at the risk of frustrating you even further – with my apologies. This might be the best tip I ever received from a favourite university professor: “Read good writing and you will absorb the skills by osmosis.”

In her book House By The Sea, May Sarton says, “Every writer has to develop a thick skin.” While I promote that focussing on positive and uplifting feedback will allow any chaff to fall away (paraphrasing and agreeing with Julia Cameron), we, as writers, must also make choices with the comments we receive. Be strong enough to allow all feedback that fails to notch perfectly into our ideas for writing to fall on deaf ears when we are finding our voice and developing our confidence. Writing, for me, if I’ve learned anything from my writing style, is a muscle that can be toned, built, and made stronger by working out regularly. Find your friendly readers who read the genre and style you write in, and teach them how to give you feed-forward comments (the kind that encourage and excite you to continue in your craft). Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom, “If you open your writing to the window of the world trying to please everyone, your writing will come down with pneumonia.” Know who your audience is and write for them.

When “show, don’t tell” irks you or leaves you confused, take heart, it is one of the most frustrating things to try to explain in words. I must show you, so how do I do that?
At the risk of hubris, I am going to attempt to show with a personal writing sample:

Telling: I spend too much time distracted and not present. I reject the demand to follow external dictates obediently and refuse medical advice. I’m a rebel. I focus on what’s in front of me. I seek a comfortable way to hold my pen. 42 words

Showing: All this conjecture on my past mistakes creates endless rabbit holes and diversions from this present moment. This moment tells me a trajectory demands a follower, and just as I jumped off the factory assembly line of medicine, I can, with a mind on the moment, choose a path I set for myself. The challenge is to keep the minutiae of life at bay and maintain a corner of my mind on the cool air on my face, my feet in their slippers touching the floor, and my hand holding this pen in a way my 63-year-old body tolerates. 95 words

I now admit I am second-guessing myself if I am really showing in the longer sample above. You tell me – where have I shown, and where are the telling statements? What have I shown you, or what can you deduce from the showing example that isn’t in the telling example? Showing invites a reader to make their deductions and conclusions.

Remember that telling is also a vital part of some writing, for certain characters for the writer’s intent. Yet showing can increase reader engagement and can stop a reader in their tracks to ponder some new enlightenment that would not have passed through to their consciousness if they were told to believe it. The best writing shows a path, a new way of thinking, or how a complex character struggles to make it through the day. Showing allows your readers to draw upon their own experience and meld it with your characters, or root for the villain when they are shown his or her backstory.

It’s like the playground teeter-totter, some showing, some telling. Now, what and how do you include more showing? One clue is the word count, but not always. Showing will usually make the writing more accessible and gripping, increasing its ability to convey a message.

Here are my top five tips for Show, Don’t Tell:

Tip #1. Dialogue, which is probed in depth in my Author #46 resource article. The dialogue tags scolded, whispered, and shouted all show the speaker's various states of mind. The action and body language of the speakers further shows the reader more about the characters in the scene. Crafting dialogue is a great tool to show when a character is angry and not just tell the reader.

Telling: “My mom was angry.”

Showing: “Rusti Lee-Anne Lehay, you will tell me the truth this instant. Did you destroy that classroom?” She glared at me without blinking. I dared not look away.

You can reveal a huge amount of backstory, create curiosity in a few words, show the character and the speakers' feelings, and convey the scene's mood.

Tip #2. Utilize all the senses. Not only is this a great tool for showing, but everyone is a different kind of learner; some are visual, many are auditory, fewer are kinaesthetic and even fewer are gustatory or olfactory. When you use language that brings in the five senses, you are engaging the reader to reach into their sensing and can evoke their memories and past sensations and bring them into the moment you create on the page. You want the readers not just to intuit what is happening but to smell, touch, taste, hear, and see the world of your characters.

Telling: The smoke alarm woke him.

Showing: Bolting up to a sitting position, groggy and momentarily confused, he identified the blaring whistle of the kitchen smoke detector. Running downstairs, coughing on the smoke floating through the kitchen doorway, he found his mother cooking, confused at her son’s anger and asking him, “What is that noise?”

We don’t need to see him getting out of bed or the room, as we can imagine that middle action. The mother’s dialogue hints at mental illness or dementia. His anger can leave you, concluding this isn't the first time or that his anger erupts out of fear, frustration, or responsibility. You choose. The writing doesn’t tell you everything but shows you enough to make your conclusions and draw you into wanting to know more.

Tip #3. Make your verbs, adverbs, and adjectives work hard to describe scenes.

Telling: My son’s father played the guitar.

A basic sentence delivering information. There is no emotion, no real sight.

Showing: My son’s father sensuously (carefully, gently, lovingly) cradled the wide-hipped Ovation hussy in his lap, his fingers alternated from plucking single strings to open-handed slapping all six to create a percussion of melodious chords vibrating through the blaring speaker.

The basic information is amplified by sight, specific verbs and adjectives to modify sound, and maybe even a bit of emotion. Did you catch the word that communicates a feeling? Discuss carefully. Does this passage need the adverb? Does sensuously add anything to the showing? Or does it add too much?

The only concrete time I have found an adverb that completely changes the meaning of the verb it modifies is this sentence: “The boy’s arm was severed. The boy’s arm was partially severed.” A gross graphic, tragic example, I know. I welcome anyone to find me a better adverb example.

Description with adjectives can be overdone, and the clue there is when it sounds like a witness report instead of a story. “He had brown, shaggy, shoulder-length hair in a black leather jacket with silver buckles, in Levi faded jeans and black cowboy boots with silver spurs.”

Tip #4. Be just a little bit obscure with enough exactness to allow the reader to pull the picture together.

If you think to tell, “I felt like this only once before,” and want the reader to guess what the feeling was like, you will most likely lose them. Sit down, focus, and describe the feeling and the scenario that created that feeling. Just know that books that show everything can be exhausting, allowing no time to relax into being told what is going on. Balance the description with some expository writing. ( I think I will ask AI for some book examples that show almost everything and books that tell almost everything and still have gained some notoriety.)

Telling: I felt tired.

Showing: I gasped for breath; my legs felt starved of air, and the forty-pound pack was biting into my shoulders and hips. Would these switchbacks never end?

There is a great book called Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and I personally love Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses. He includes 34 revision exercises that are invaluable.

Tip #5 Develop your setting. What are your characters doing in the setting, why are they there, and how are they interacting with their setting? Can your readers picture themselves where your character is in the scene? Give them enough, but not so much that they can’t see their own idea of the mountain.

Telling: She hiked up the mountain trail.

Showing: She tightened the hip and shoulder straps, puffing around the switchbacks with steep drop-offs, knowing a loose pack swaying at the wrong moment could throw her off balance and plummet her over the edge. She pulled her gloves on, fighting the frosty morning air.

What do you see in the showing that wasn’t in the telling?

Anton Chekhov illustrates “Show, Don’t Tell” best: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

One more random example.

Telling: It was a cold day to be hungry. (statement)
Showing: Shivering, she crumpled up the paper and gathered some dry twigs, adding the tinder to the tiny flame; she anticipated the welcomed warmth after a day tramping in the snow, hoping one of her traps yielded something for supper. (showing, in a run-on sentence, mind you, but showing)

After completing the above, I asked AI to Illustrate in great detail the top five tips for “Show, Don’t Tell” in creative writing. This is what it delivered and it is unedited:

"Show, don't tell" is a common phrase in creative writing that means that instead of simply stating what's happening or what the characters are thinking or feeling, the writer should use descriptive language and action to show the reader. This technique makes the writing more engaging and allows the reader to experience the story more fully. Here are the top five tips for "show, don't tell" in creative writing:
1. Use sensory details: Instead of telling the reader that a character is happy, show them by describing the way the character smiles, laughs, or moves. Use sensory details like smells, sounds, and textures to help the reader imagine the scene.
2. Use action: Instead of telling the reader that a character is angry, show them by describing the way the character slams doors or clenches their fists. Use action to help the reader understand the character's emotions.
3. Use dialogue: Instead of telling the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling, use dialogue to show it. Let the characters express their emotions through their words and actions.
4. Use metaphor and symbolism: Instead of telling the reader that a character is sad, show them by using a metaphor or symbol to represent the character's emotions. For example, a character might be described as a "wilting flower" to show their sadness.
5. Use pacing: Instead of telling the reader that a scene is tense, show them by using pacing to create suspense. Use short, choppy sentences to build tension, and longer, flowing sentences to release it.
Remember, "show, don't tell" is all about engaging the reader's senses and emotions, so use descriptive language and action to create a vivid and immersive story.

**End of AI-generated text.**

Okay, I admit, I am a little envious and chagrined that I neglected to mention pacing. I do love talking about the variety of sentence structure and length that build a rhythm into the text and create urgency or a lull.

When is “Telling" a preferred technique?

Telling is cutting corners but is sometimes necessary to achieve your objective. There are times to expose an aspect of the plot quickly, spell out a character's motivation, or offer a big reveal that leads to a rise in action, a character shift where complexity requires you to show rather than tell. The beginning of stories might require some telling to arrive at the hook that draws the reader. I like novels like that and others, I give them 50-75 pages to hook me. After that, I will allow myself to put the book down. There are too many good books, and life is too short to waste time with poorly written books.

As stated above, it is all about balance. Do some telling, some showing, and write. If you worry about breaking rules or not meeting some externally imposed guidelines, your words will shy away from landing on the screen or page. If your writing intrigues and pulls in your audience, definitely stop worrying. Remember, writing rules are often like grandmotherly advice. Take what you can use and apply, what fits your strategic objectives for your narrative, and store away the rest when and if it ever becomes useful to you. In a first draft, you are often still finding out what your theme is, who your characters are, and what conflicts and triumphs they will have. You can practice writing, and it doesn’t have to take eight years like a medical degree; practice with dedication like the ukulele

Resource Article on Dialogue: Click here.
Debunking the 10,000- Hour myth: Click here.


Rusti L Lehay, a global editor and book and writing coach, created over 40 articles guiding writers to authordom. Witnessing writers find and speak in their own voice to serve the real boss, the audience, not the editor, is one of Rusti’s greatest joys. She offers bi-monthly online writing STAY-Treats and monthly lounges and teaches weekly creative writing classes. Her primary mission is to inspire, provide value and make writing fun and easy.

Learn more about Rusti

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