“Be sure to show—don’t tell—what’s going on in your story.”
As a writer, you’ve probably heard these words of advice many times before (maybe even from me!). But what does it mean? What’s the difference between showing and telling? When you "tell" information, you’re informing your reader of something (i.e., He’s tall.) Instead, good writing is comprised of "showing" readers (i.e., When he stood, his head brushed against the ceiling) and allowing them to make that connection for themselves.
Showing (instead of telling) is the key to fascinating storytelling—and writing good, hard-to-put-down books.
In other words, “telling” is boring, straightforward information—while “showing” is vivid and creative, truly bringing the scene and overall story to life. The writer who can effectively “show” an important scene is perceived as more knowledgeable and skillful in the eyes of editors and publishers alike. But how do you do it?
Instead of "telling" that a character is angry, "show" it: She might ball her fists, grit her teeth, or her face might turn red. "Showing" something, especially an important scene, is a key part of writing well.
Let’s work through some examples.
Telling: She daydreamed that she and Mr. Woods were buck naked, making out in the shower.
Showing: She imagined the feel of his wet fingertips over her body, and the taste of his tongue on hers. She could feel the droplets of water as the shower rained down upon them…
Telling: I was sitting in church listening to the priest when my mom told me it was time to go.
Showing: I shifted on my seat, the hard wood uncomfortable after I had sat for so long. Ahead of me, the priest said a prayer, the words quiet on his lips. I leaned forward, straining to hear him, when I felt someone touch my shoulder. “Sarah,” my mother said next to me, “it’s time to go.”
Telling: The soldiers marched ahead confidently, receiving occasional arrows from their enemies.
Showing: The soldiers marched forward, their heads held high. Occasional enemies’ arrows parried through the air, deflecting off their armor with a near-silent clink.
What are 3 quick ways to show (not tell) a scene?
1. Incorporate action and dialogue. Use strong verbs—She stormed across the room works better than She walked angrily across the room. (When possible, avoid adverbs in general, especially those that end in -ly.) Bonus points for dialogue and action, which can especially help with character and scene development.
2. Be descriptive and specific, not general. Show the action by being specific, especially when it makes a difference to the story. Keep your descriptions concrete and specific, not vague and ambiguous.
3. Use sensory details. Tap into the five senses—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—to give better descriptions of the worlds your characters live in. Minor details such as these can really fill out your novel and make the story and its characters come to life.
Incorporating these 3 elements helps cut down on the “telling” in your story and draws readers in with more “showing.”
But wait! It’s not always necessary to “show” every single detail (in fact, it would be overkill if you did!) When you’re just giving some basic information—such as a character getting ready for the day—it’s not necessary to “show” this. Reserve “showing” for scenes of importance (those which show a conflict, a turning point, a setback or obstacle, or a crisis that your character must deal with). No matter what, structure your book so that you regularly include an actual “shown” scene to keep readers’ attention and to bring the story to life!
A book that is too much “telling” and not enough “showing” is…well, boring. Add detail or “show” what’s going on to expand on important moments and draw the reader into the story. A good book is nothing without detailed narration and action on the page.
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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of
Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing
services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several
authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have
topped Amazon's best sellers lists.
Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she
can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her
four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,
eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is
likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.