A New Look at the Old Adage: Show, Don't Tell

Sunday, June 08, 2014
I know you have heard this before, and not just once, but a million times: show, don't tell. But when you are writing fiction (or another creative genre), it is a good practice to SHOW the scene and the action to evoke emotion; don’t just TELL about it. I want to re-explore this common writing “rule” for several reasons:

  1. Most of my college writing students have a very difficult time with this concept, even if they have heard of it before, so I assume others have difficulty with it, too...
  2. ...myself included! I am guilty of ignoring this rule. I get on a roll when I’m drafting and I don’t want to lose any of my ideas, so sometimes it’s easier to get everything down by telling it. Then in the revision process, I can expand the telling into showing the action and scenes with beautiful, carefully-crafted writing.
  3. Repetition helps us to remember concepts better – so if you have already heard this rule, I’m helping to reinforce it :-)
    courtesy of UNC Admissions blog

Show, Don't Tell: A Mini-Writing Lesson

Here’s a mini-lesson on showing vs. telling. Consider the following sentence:
The boy ate his lunch.
What do you know about the boy and his lunch based on this sentence? You can probably fill in the gaps by making inferences and assumptions based on your own life experiences. But overall, this sentence doesn’t show you much.

Now consider this sentence:
The boy hungrily ate his lunch. It tasted very good to him.
OK, this gives us more information. Sort of. But what does “hungrily” look like? Is he shoving it into his face with both hands? Or does he just look hungry because he’s super skinny? We don’t know. Same with “tasted very good.” Also, we still don’t know what he’s eating.

Lastly, consider this sentence:
The Syrian refugee savored the crust of bread as if it were a gourmet meal.
Now what do you know about this boy? A lot more than before! “Syrian refugee” gives us a context for the boy and his lunch, and could give us a partial visual image. “Savored” lets us know he enjoyed his meal but ate it slowly. “Crust of bread” shows us what he’s eating, and this is important because wouldn’t you get a completely different feeling from this sentence if he were eating a slice of chocolate cake or a rack of BBQ ribs?

Well-crafted sentences with clear and poignant word choices not only SHOW the scene (characters, setting, and action), they help the reader to relate to that scene and feel some kind of emotion.

Show, Don't Tell: A Writing Exercise:

Try showing rather than telling. Write a short scene, 3-5 sentences, about a person who is either

  • Excited
  • Frustrated
  • Curious
  • Or Generous

...and do this without using that word (or related words)

Feel free to share your creations in the comments! Good luck, have fun, and happy writing!

Writing Lesson by: Anne Greenawalt, writer and writing instructor


Ms. Adams said...

Carol's eyes darted across the words on her computer screen. Finally! she thought. In the next moment she twirled around her office and did the cha cha slide!

Margo Dill said...

Ann: I put your prompt on our Facebook page, and we had some people try your exercise in the comments there, too, if you have time to check it out. I need to stretch my writing muscles too!

Unknown said...

In my imagination, the boy eating lunch was an American child opening a lunchbox in a school cafeteria. I'm taking this lesson to my next writers group meeting, and I can hardly wait to hear all the different stories this exercise will inspire.

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