How to Master "Show, Don't Tell"
You’ve heard it a million times: “Show, don't tell.” But what does "show, don’t tell" really mean? How do we spot telling in our own writing? And is showing always the better choice, or are there instances where telling might be better? We have answers to help you show like a pro!
Imagine the following scenario: You and your friends have bought tickets to the latest action flick you’ve heard so many good things about. According to the critics, the movie has some heart-stopping action scenes, a swoon-worthy love story, and to top it all off, the lead isn’t too hard on the eyes either.
With a happy sigh, you settle in the comfy seat, balancing a soft drink and the biggest bucket of popcorn known to mankind on your knee, ready for the action to explode onto the big screen. Only… it doesn’t. Instead, you hear the words: “The flashy vehicle sped along the highway. Gunshots were fired. There were a few close shaves with the bad guys but our good-looking hero outsmarted them at every turn. The love interest made goo-goo eyes at the hero when they miraculously escaped the vehicle just before it drove off the mountain’s ledge, straight into the murky depths of the ocean.”
A chorus of boos erupts, and you join in, throwing popcorn at the screen. This isn’t what you came for! You came here to experience the action, not be told about it!
Of course, a movie is a different medium than a book, but the same principle holds true. Readers want to experience the story as it unfolds.
Showing lets the reader draw their own conclusions. Rather than telling your reader that the hero is in a scary situation, they’ll know it because of the details you include. A screeching door. Sudden darkness. A gust of wind coming out of nowhere. Footsteps drawing closer. And as authors we have an advantage that screenwriters don’t have—we can connect these images to sensory details like a pounding heart that draws out every other sound, or cold sweat trickling down your hero’s spine as they struggle to draw air into their lungs. Showing paints a vivid picture whereas telling just states the facts, much like a newspaper article.
Let’s take a look at some examples of how you can spot telling in your own writing, and how you can replace it with showing.
Be on the lookout for adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are tell-tale signs of telling because they draw conclusions rather than let the reader make up their own mind about what’s going on. “Go away!” he shouted angrily. The fact that he’s angry is obvious from what is being said. You can leave out "angrily" and your reader will still get the tense emotional undercurrent of what’s going on. If you want to take it one step further, you could replace the dialogue tag ‘he shouted’ with an action tag: "Go away!" He slammed his fist against the wall.
The same can be said for adjectives. His eyes were beautiful. But what does "beautiful" even mean? You could replace it with something like: His green eyes sparkled like emeralds.
Filter out filtering verbs
Get rid of filter verbs like hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, thinking, and noticing. For instance, I heard someone scream. The fact that the scream is heard is redundant. Sure, you can see someone’s mouth forming a scream (which of course would make sense for a character with a hearing impairment) but you can’t see the actual scream. Nor can you taste it or smell it. "I heard" is an example of telling that adds unnecessary fluff and separates the reader from the action. Someone screamed or A scream ripped through the night will work much better here. If you spot filter words in your own writing, ask yourself if they are needed to clarify what’s going on. Usually, you can just leave them out.
Avoid telling how your characters feel
Naming emotions like he was afraid or she was angry is the equivalent of watching a movie where right in the middle of a tense scene the characters turn to the camera and say, “I am very angry right now,” and then carry on. Naming the emotion robs your reader from drawing their own conclusions. Rather than writing "she was angry," describe what angry looks like on the canvas of your blank page. Slamming her fist against the wall? Or does she turn around with pursed lips because she wants to avoid conflict at all costs?
As you know, Bob…
In dialogue, beware of the dreaded "as you know, Bob…" This is the term we use when characters discuss things both are already aware of solely for the benefit of conveying information to the reader. “As you know, Bob, we had eggs for breakfast” or “As you know, Bob, we are vampires who can only go outside after sundown.”
However, if you leave out all the Bob-related obviousness, dialogue is a great way of showing! The minute your characters start interacting, action takes place—action that evokes emotion and forces them to react to the cues the other person is giving them, which will lead to more action. Characters interacting with each other will show your reader what their relationship is like—are they friends, or can they barely tolerate each other? Dialogue can also be used to highlight what isn’t being said, adding an extra layer of tension to your scene.
Is it ever okay to tell rather than show?
Showing is important and the preferred way of storytelling. However, it’s impossible to show everything because that will result in a 500,000-word encyclopedic doorstopper. So, when is it better to tell than to show?
When you repeat information that has already been shared
For instance, if a police officer needs to bring another officer up to speed on something that your reader is already aware of, use something like Kelly quickly brought Sasha up to speed on what the coroner had told her. If the reader already knows what the coroner told Kelly, there is no need to hash it out on the page a second time.
To bridge the passing of time
For instance, if two weeks pass without anything dramatically relevant happening that will move the story forward, you can just write Two weeks later and any progress they had made on the murder case had come to a screeching halt. No need to document everything that has happened in those two weeks.
To describe mundane activities
If a character opens a door, they do just that—opening a door. You don’t need to go into painstaking detail about them fishing for their keys, putting their lock into the key, and then turning the key and… Just say She opened the door. However, if your character is dreading opening that door for fear of what’s behind it, that’s when it’s better to show. Her hand trembled as she slid the key into the lock. Turn, turn, turn… One step over that small threshold but it felt like stepping into the abyss, where monsters lurked in the dark.
In your first draft
First drafts are about you getting down the bare bones of your story and laying the foundation from which you can build your subsequent drafts. In your first draft, your characters can shout things angrily, hear screams and turn to the camera to tell you how they feel to their heart’s content because no one but you will read it. When you polish your prose to a shine, that’s where you need to convert the telling to showing. And as an added benefit, since you’ll get to know your characters even better with each draft, you will also have a better grasp of how your character displays emotions like anger, fear, and joy.
The most important thing to remember is to let the reader draw their own conclusions about what’s happening. For them, the fun is in discovering the story as it unfolds. Showing gives your reader the experience of immersing themselves in what’s happening instead of just reading words on the page. Think of yourself like Steven Spielberg as you direct your characters through the pages of your story like it’s a big screen filled with word-painted images, and you're bound to get it right!