When to Show, Not Tell

When you start writing a book, the very first thing you learn is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

It doesn’t matter how many people you talk to or blogs you read- this is always the first rule of becoming a writer. But what does it really mean? And why do so many new authors struggle with it?

I’m glad you asked.

The Golden Rule of Writing

“In descriptions of Nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes, he gets a picture.”

Anton Chekhov, 1886

Most of the writing community regards the above quote as the first piece of “show, don’t tell” advice, and Chekhov routinely used this strategy¬†in his works. However, it was actually Earnest Hemingway who perfected the “show, don’t tell” scene.

According to Hemingway, writers can strengthen their prose by omitting details. Known as the Iceberg Theory, it suggests that your readers are intelligent enough to fill in the gaps produced by the show, don’t tell strategy.

That respect is why “show, don’t tell” is the number one rule in the writing world. But how do we apply it?

Showing

Simply put, showing means using descriptive words and actions to describe a scene.

It may feel like unnecessary fluff at first, but showing a scene does five important things for your manuscript:

  • Engages the reader by calling on their senses, knowledge, and problem-solving skills
  • Enhances their reading experience by making them part of your world
  • It makes your writing more memorable
  • Adds subtlety and creativity to your writing
  • Strengthens your vocabulary and editing skills

And those are all things to include in your writing career!

To show a scene, remember these tips:

  • Use strong nouns, verbs, and descriptors.
  • Include the sensory details (what can the reader see, feel, hear, touch, or smell?).
  • Use action as the focal point.
  • Describe your setting
  • Include dialogue (but skip the tags if you can).
  • Use visual cues to describe emotions.

For example, instead of saying Sally was thirsty, you could say:

Sally wiped her brow with a soft, linen handkerchief. The sun beat down on her skin, making the freckles on her arm pop, and she gathered her tools with a sigh. Dirt and debris fell from her pants as she rose from her garden, and she quickly stored her tools before entering her kitchen through the open French doors. Grabbing a glass cup from her oak cabinets, Sally ran it under the cool tap before bringing it to her lips. She sighed with relief as the liquid moistened her parched mouth and poured down her throat, cooling her body from the inside out. 

It evokes the senses (heat from the sun, softness of the cloth, coolness of the water), focuses on the actions (putting tools away, entering the house, grabbing glass), and gives you a bigger picture (why she was thirsty). It brings your reader into Sally’s world and makes them feel like a part of the story- a feature that most readers will appreciate. However, showing a scene takes a lot of practice, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get it right away. 

Telling

If showing is describing a scene, then telling is the opposite. When you tell something, you’re giving the bare-bone facts of the situation. And, while showing may be the first choice for readers and writers alike, telling also has a place in your writing.

For example, you can use telling sentences to:

  • Connect scenes
  • Gloss over unimportant characters or conversations
  • Pass the time
  • Report events
  • Add backstory
  • Provide internal thoughts or emotions

Let’s revisit Sally in her garden.

Sally wiped her brow with a soft, linen handkerchief. The sun beat down on her skin, making the freckles on her arm pop, and she gathered her tools with a sigh. Dirt and debris fell from her pants as she rose from her garden, and she quickly stored her tools before entering her kitchen through the open French doors. Grabbing a glass cup from her oak cabinets, Sally ran it under the cool tap before bringing it to her lips. She sighed with relief as the liquid moistened her parched mouth and poured down her throat, cooling her body from the inside out.

A few hours later, Sally was preparing a lovely dinner of steak, potatoes, and a fresh salad from her garden when she heard the front door open. George soon entered the well-kept kitchen and gave his wife a small smile as he poured himself a double of whiskey from the liquor cabinet. 

As you can see, a mix of showing and telling makes for good storytelling. We used it in this example to tell time and transition the scene (a few hours later), introduce a new character (George, her husband), and offer some insight into his background (he drinks).

Telling can give you (and your characters) a break from the story, give them time to think, or let them grow older without documenting every moment of their lives. However, if you go overboard with your telling, you risk disconnecting your readers- a writer’s worst nightmare!

Words to Avoid

The next time you look over your manuscript, keep an eye out for these words. Overusing them may mean that you’re telling more than you show.

Obviously/ Clearly/ Apparently/ Surely/ Plainly/ Etc.

Sally rolled her eyes at George as he poured another glass, obviously annoyed with his third drink of the evening. 

The above example is a classic sign of oversharing. We know Sally’s annoyed with George- we can see it in her body language. There’s no need to add the second half of the sentence- it only reiterates what the readers know and pulls them from the action.

Told/ Tell/ Tells

George told Sally about his rough day as he poured. 

It’s literally telling us what happened, but without any details that may help us form an opinion. George had a rough day, so he needed a drink. That’s all we know, and that’s all we get.

Flowery or Pretty Language

Sally felt annoyed that George had, once again, failed to remember their anniversary. 

The above sentence feels like a show, but it’s actually a tell wrapped in pretty language. It tells only the facts of the scene, leaving us with nothing to do but skim the line and move on.

Last Notes

Showing and Telling have their place in your writing, but knowing how and where to use them will take practice. One way to practice is to ask someone else to read your work and give feedback.

To get a better sense of your “show, don’t tell” style, ask them the following questions: 

  • Can you visualize the setting?
  •  Could you connect with the main characters?
  •  Were you able to predict the plot?
  •  Did the story feel rushed or incomplete?
  •  Was there enough dialogue?

If they answer no to one or more of these questions, then there’s a good chance you’re telling the story instead of showing it. Time to go through it with a fine-toothed comb and fix that!

Do you practice the show, don’t tell rule? Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

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