Show, Don't Tell -- What Does This Writing Rule Mean?

If you've been a writer more than ten minutes, you've encountered the steadfast writer rule: Show, Don't Tell. It's repeated so often, it could be a chant. And though it is excellent advice, it isn't so easily heeded. Especially when we aren't sure what it means. So how do we spot the big no-no in our writings?

First, let's distinguish the two approaches.

Telling is the act of passing along information. Thoughts, feelings, conversations and events are summarized profoundly, similar to what you'd hear in a court of law. Almost anyone can write: Eula was mad so she hit Gene with her shoe. Not particularly riveting, but it works well when we simply want the facts.

Showing, on the other hand, is the art of speaking to the imagination. A storyteller takes the time to act out pivotal scenes because she knows her ability to attract readers rests solely on her ability to evoke another world. She can't possibly do that by dumping info into their lap. She has to let them experience it:

Eula threw her shoe. It hit him in the back. "Don't you dare walk out on me!" she shouted.

"You forget," he shot back, "I'm not your daddy."

At this point, hopefully, readers' imaginations have been engaged. Suddenly they're involved. They can see her flying shoe, they can feel it hit his back, they can hear the conversation and they can read between the lines. Eula is a spoiled daddy's girl.

So whenever we're unsure whether we're telling instead of showing, let's check for these elements:

- Little or no dialogue. If we haven't used quotation marks in a while, it may be time to re-evaluate our technique. When's the last time our characters actually spoke?

- Little or no movement. If our characters remain in the same space, sitting, mulling, contemplating, wondering, analyzing, remembering, etc., it may be time to re-define this project. Are we writing a story or a private journal?

- Little or no ambiance and presence. If we gloss over important events, giving the rundown on who said what, when, where and how, and then slip out of the event without so much as a drink, it may be time to ponder. Why did we feel the need to include this important event in the first place?

The goal is to maintain reader participation by fueling the imagination with vivid and specific language ... to create stories so lifelike, they linger in the mind long after the book is closed.

Just like those books we buy and read over and over. The fact we know how they end isn't relevant, is it? We reread to relive the experience. That's the effect of, that's the beauty of, showing a story.

About the Author

Elizabeth Guy is founder of ReadingWriters, editor of The VERB Writing Ezine and author of "Making A Scene with Mush Pump and Ice Noodle." Her articles, poetry and stories have been published all over the place.

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