I often hear that “show, don’t tell” is the number one rule to writing fiction. To which I 100% agree.
Aside from having a unique and compelling story/characters, my favorite books are my favorites because of how engaging they are. I want to be pulled into the thick of the story and experience it right along with the point of view character.
Engaging a reader into the story can be accomplished when a writer shows instead of tells. Not only does it strengthen the reader’s experience, showing will strengthen the writing overall and it will read as much more professional.
How can I spot the difference between show and tell?
I struggled with this when I first started writing. Some days I’ll edit the occasional paragraph of vivid details only to realize I’m just telling the reader what they need to know.
In simplest definitions…
Showing: painting a picture with words that can be interpreted by the reader’s mind’s eye.
Telling: Supplying information to the reader in which they cannot deduce anything additional from the sentence.
Showing uses action, dialogue, inner thought or monologue, body language, and sensory descriptions to engage the readers with the story.
ex: Frost bit onto the front lawn. Mary’s breath fogged the glass as she sighed. She laced up leather boots and threw on an extra knit sweater.
Telling tends to be simple and straightforward, allowing for little interpretation.
ex: It was cold. Mary did not like the cold. She wore weather appropriate clothing.
Showing versus descriptive telling
Sometimes it’s tough to identify telling, because it is disguised with pretty language.
For example: Lana felt worry wash over her because Mike neglected to return home that morning.
But don’t think that adding extra words makes a sentence magically start showing. Even though there is more detail, it does not establish an engaging narrative.
Instead (showing): A porcelain coffee cup trembled in Lana’s hand as she paced, waiting for the sun to peek out over the horizon and for Mike to return.
The sentence now has a more vivid description and helps shapes a scene in the reader’s mind.
Ways to show instead of tell
- Use sensory details—describe how something looks, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels. (but please spare the reader and do not do all of these things for one object.)
- Use strong verbs–– The man didn’t move quickly, he sprinted.
- Use specific nouns and clear adjectives––Instead of piling on weaker nouns i.e. a heavy, fur-lined, winter-coat could be more specifically described as a parka. Clear and direct adjectives will pack a bigger punch. Instead of “the food tasted bad”, try “The food tasted ashy” or even better “The food left a bitter taste of ash coating my taste buds.”
- Use dialogue/internal monologue––Dialogue will automatically create a visual and auditory image in the reader’s mind. Expressing a character’s voice will show their characterization. Just remember to establish meaningful dialogue and to balance it with an appropriate amount of description.
When is it okay to tell?
Contrary to the first rule of fiction writing and pretty much everything said above, telling does have its strengths! The key is to understand the difference between the two and to know the exceptions for when it advantages the story to tell instead of show.
- When writing a first draft
- The first draft of the story is you telling yourself the story. If you have to ‘tell’ to do that, it is perfectly okay. The editing process is all about taking all of those initial concepts and fleshing them out and polishing.
- To ground the reader.
- Showing is not so great at informing us about the wider context. Telling can be useful at establishing some foundational details. Telling can also keep things moving and concentrate the reader’s attention where it really matters.
- When showing results in frilly or unnecessary description.
- Keep it simple! If you have a specific point to make that is necessary to include and showing it just comes off as mundane or tedious, by all means tell it and move on.