All writers hear the phrase “show, don’t tell.” I know I’ve certainly heard this and although I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of doing just that, this phrase inevitably creeps its way back into my writing critiques. So, what exactly does it mean when an editor, reviewer, or colleague says these words to you? What do they mean “show and don’t tell”? Isn’t writing all about telling a story? Fortunately for me (and all of you!) I’ve had wonderful creative writing professors who have helped to break down this little dilemma for me.
A big part of showing versus telling involves actions. Many writers find themselves in the habit of telling us how their characters are feeling rather than showing us how their characters are feeling through their actions. For example, let’s say your main character is Susie. An example of telling would be as follows:
Susie walked into the hospital room and felt sad.
As a reader, I don’t have much to draw me into this scene because all I know is what I’ve been told – Susie felt sad. A more effective way of writing would be to show me that Susie felt sad through her demeanor and actions. For example:
Susie walked into the hospital room and her shoulders tensed up immediately. Her breath started coming in short bursts and her eyes brimmed with tears.
In this second example, I don’t need to be told that Susie felt sad because I call tell how she felt by what I’ve been shown. I can picture Susie standing in the hospital room about to cry – her shoulders tense from trying to hold herself together, her breath coming quickly, and her eyes filling with tears. The first example tells me Susie is sad but leaves me with nothing to imagine. After all, what does sad look like, feel like, or sound like? The second example clearly shows me Susie’s physical state and in so doing, allows me to understand her emotional state as well.
In short, don’t tell me how your characters are feeling. Show me how your characters are feeling. Don’t tell me it’s a nice day outside. Show me the blue, cloudless sky and describe the chirping of birds. Yes, writing is telling a story. However, the most effective writing is the kind that engages the reader. You don’t just want to tell your readers about the world you’ve created for your story. You want them to feel fully immersed in it. The way to do that is to show your readers that world and show them your characters. Don’t just tell them about it/them.
I hope this has helped clear up some confusion on showing vs. telling with regards to writing your stories. If you have anything to add or have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section.