Understanding “Show, Don’t Tell”

by Erin Lafond
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understanding show don't tell

If you’re a writer, you’ve definitely heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s impossible not to hear it. It’s everywhere. It’s in articles about the best writing advice, and it’s in articles about terrible writing advice. So, which is it? Well, it can be either depending on your understanding of the phrase. Most people parrot the advice without explaining it, so it’s understandable that you’d be confused. So, I wanted to break down “show, don’t tell,” explain why editors are obsessed with it, and tell you how you can use it.

What It Means

Let’s start with a basic understanding of what showing and telling is. If you tell your reader that your character is a greedy guy who doesn’t care about other people, then you’ve put your reader in the position of just having to believe you. If you give your reader a scene of your character stealing money from an orphanage, they just know that he’s greedy and doesn’t care about others. You’ve shown that. The result is that the reader can draw their own conclusions about your character, and you can actually inspire feelings (such as anger and disgust) regarding your character. That’s the goal, after all. You want to make your reader feel something. This is generally why people say, “show, don’t tell.” Because when you tell, you often rob the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions and engage with your story.

This also applies to descriptions. You don’t always want to write, “She looked sad,” because it generally doesn’t tell the reader anything. You want to write about how her eyes were glassy or she was frowning or she was looking at the ground with slouched shoulders. There are ways to describe people so you allow your reader to interpret what they’re feeling. Obviously, if you have a character throw a chair at the wall, you don’t need to then say, “He seemed angry.”

Why Everyone Says It

So, new writers in particular tend to have a telling problem. I’ve definitely told clients “show, don’t tell” because they often think it’s sufficient to just say “he was angry” or “he was a good man.” Like, we discussed above, if you tell everything, then you don’t give the reader a chance to engage with your story. There also tends to be a degree of not trusting the reader to interpret things properly. You do your best to show what is happening and trust your reader to understand. Not to mention, if you spend the entire story telling, your story can get boring fast.

“Show, Don’t Tell” Taken Too Far

The same way telling can be taken too far, showing can also be taken too far. If you show absolutely everything, your work is going to get bogged down with details that don’t need to be there. This is also boring. Your reader doesn’t want to have slog through all these details to figure out what is important. It’s the same way you can have an entire backstory in your head that doesn’t make it into the story because it’s not immediately relevant.

You Need Showing and Telling

A good book has a balance of showing and telling. That’s the reality. But what do you show and what do you tell? There isn’t a hard and fast rule for this, but typically, you want to show what’s important and tell everything else. This applies to everything: setting, emotion, character, etc, etc, etc.

Properly executing “show, don’t tell” requires practice. You have to understand the type of book/scene you are writing when you decide whether or not to show. Sometimes you just need a sentence like, “Her last boyfriend cheated on her” as opposed to showing us their breakup scene where he admits he cheated. You have to figure out what is important and use “show, don’t tell” to impart that to the reader. If you spend all this time on a detail that doesn’t matter, at the end of the book, your reader is going to be confused.

Exercise: Go through your favorite published story and point out the places where you are shown something and the places you are told something. Think about why they decided to write their story that way and what showing/telling are doing in each instance.

Any questions? Any “show, don’t tell” advice of your own? Comment below and let me know!

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