“Show, Don’t Tell” — an old-but-true adage for fiction writers

Today let’s talk a little bit about writing. After all you have to finish the manuscript before you can publish your book, which a whole other topic by itself. Writing a novel is more about re-writing and editing than completing the rough draft. And one of the larger trolls hiding in pages of a first book or a fifteenth book is flat, boring writing.

What does “Show, Don’t Tell” mean? Telling your reader what to think or what to feel leaves no room for their imagination, their own perception of a character or what’s happening. You may ask, “Isn’t writing fiction telling a story?” Yes and no. If you “tell” too much of the story, your reader will lose interest rather quickly. Two obvious examples: 1) John was fat and very lazy. 2) Susan felt angry and frustrated.

Showing your reader is providing facts and details, engaging them into what’s happening at the moment. You want to “show” the story using the five senses or get them involved emotionally. Remember John? Rewritten: John forced himself from the chair with a grunt, spreading his legs to balance his pear-shaped frame, while muttering about the stupidity of mowing the lawn when the grass would just grow back. See the difference?  And what about Susan? Rewritten: Her face flushed a crimson red, lips pinched into a straight cold line, as she shuffled through the stack of papers again.

Showing will take more words to describe for the reader but the effects will be worth it. Do you always have to be more word fluent? No, there are times where telling is enough to move the story along. But overdo the telling and you may come across as a weak or amateur writer.

Just as good writing mixes long and short sentences throughout paragraphs and pages, so should you mix show versus tell in your writing. Paint a picture for your reader, splash color on the page. Let’s try another example: Jason sat on the couch holding his guitar. Now this is a decent sentence with basic information, we just don’t know much about what’s going on. Now compare it with this: With eyes closed, Jason cradled the guitar in his arms as if trying to hold on to something, leaning back into the plush couch cushion.

Read your pages and see where you can punch up your writing using “Show, Don’t Tell.” Pick out a book by a favorite author and flip to any page. Reading the paragraphs, spot where the author used Show and where they used Tell. The more you become aware, the easier it will be to spot this in your own writing.

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3 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell” — an old-but-true adage for fiction writers

    1. Kathleen Shaputis Post author

      Peter,

      Excellent job on your post in September! Putting an entire paragraph together and revising does give a more direct sample. Thank you for sharing this!

      Kathleen

      Reply

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