Show, don't tell



“Show me Bob walking across the room to turn on the heat, don’t tell me.” What? What does that mean?

I didn’t get it, if I wrote that Bob walked across the room to turn on the heat, the reader should know he was cold why wasn’t that showing them? I didn’t study creative writing as most published authors did.
Oh, sure I had a gift of storytelling, but not a clue how to properly put that story into words. I had to learn one baby step at a time.

But still I have come to find out that the show, don’t tell thing is a hard concept for even the most studied authors to learn.

It took two books, a few frustrated editors, and the start of the third book for the light to finally come on for me. Show, don't tell allows the reader to be in the room with Bob as he walks across it. They can hear the boards creek beneath his feet or feel the icy chill on his arms as gooseflesh begins to rise. Describing the walk and cold through action words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than just saying he did it, makes the reader part of the story. By describing the scene in such a way, the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

Telling: Bob walked across the room to turn up the heat.

Showing: The stone floor chilled Bob’s bare feet the moment he stepped onto it. Pulling the blanket around his shoulders he headed toward the thermostat.

In the “showing” example, rather than merely saying that Bob walked across the room to turn on the heat the reader experiences the cold from the stone floor on his feet, and pulling the blanket around his shoulders shows he’s cold. The reader can deduce the same information they would get from the “telling” example but in a much more compelling way.

Showing also helps develop characters in a way that is not just listing their good or bad traits. For example, rather than telling your readers that “Bob is self-centered,” you could show this characteristic in him by writing a scene where he whines about something someone did to him, but he’s oblivious to the fact that he himself is guilty of doing the same thing to others. Or if his character is an extremely strong-minded person, show him persevering through something — don’t just say “he was determined.” The reader should be able to imagine themselves in that very setting.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Overall, when done right, showing draws readers into the narrative. It contributes to story development but also leaves certain things up to the reader’s interpretation, which is much more interesting than making everything explicit.

The bottom line: telling might be quicker, and it’s certainly necessary to have some telling in every story but showing should almost always be your prime strategy.


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