Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most cited pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is to “Show, Don’t Tell”.  It is also one of the most difficult things to notice in one’s own writing, especially for somebody just getting into writing.  It’s certainly not something that  I was good at spotting in my own writing until recently working with my critique group and looking at the writings of others.

I think one of the reasons “Show, Don’t Tell” is so difficult for new writers is that those three words together on their own don’t do a very good job of explaining what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. My eyes glaze over when I read that phrase, to be honest, and it makes me want to stop writing and just read something instead. But the advice is good, just the packaging is lacking.

It comes down to reader engagement. You want your reader to be INSIDE the story and not feel like they are being told a story (like one is read a book when they are a kid). So, instead of:

The phone rang and Stacy picked it up. It was the boss. She told Stacy the world is ending and Stacy was the only one who could save mankind. Stacy replied that she was kind’ve busy but maybe she could save the Earth on Friday. Stacy hung up the phone and continued the New York Times crossword puzzle.

How about this:

Stacy’s pocket buzzed and she put down her pencil, cursing the interruption. It was the Boss. Brilliant.

“What is it, I’m busy here,” Stacy said, rolling her eyes because she could.

“Oh really? The end of the world again? Get Bill to take care of it. I’m busy here, you know.”

Stacy stared at her chipped nails, bitten to the nub. She  needed a manicure, like yesterday.

“I’m the only one? Really? Look, you get me a team together, somebody competent this time and maybe I’ll squeeze you in on Friday, okay?”

Pressing End Call, she continued on Monday’s edition of the Times’ crossword puzzle.

Both tell the story, right? But don’t you feel like you are right there in the thick of things with the second version? Can’t you feel the contempt for the Boss that Stacy feels? Do you have just a little more idea of how important Stacy is that she can talk to her boss in this way?

So that’s it really. Put us there in your story. Don’t tell us something happened. Describe it in real-time.


14 thoughts on “Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. I completely agree… sometimes ago I got this “memo” with I do use as well when writing a novel:
    1: Does your screenplay use the 3 Act structure? 99% of successful films over the last 100 years have used it. Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course. But for now, use the 3 Act structure. Here’s an overview: Focus on the exploits of your main character, as well as defining the three main acts. Act 1 typically sets the unique circumstances that propel the story and character’s agenda. Act 2 is split into two smaller acts (a, and b). 2a brings momentum to the challenges your main character faces, as the various plots are woven. 2b typically brings a surprise conflict or challenge that must be overcome. This is the “twist” that may put your character’s agenda at risk, and complicate it to a point of being compelling and entertaining to watch. The darkest time for your character is at the end of Act 2. Act 3 brings resolution to your plot and character’s agenda. Themes of redemption, revenge, confirmation of love, victory, or acceptance are all common themes.

    2: Are you SHOWING instead of TELLING? TELLING would be “Michael and Sarah are having fun with a lot of people at the house party.” SHOWING would be “A steady stream of people push by Michael as he makes his way through a darkly lit hallway carrying two beers. He spots a dancing Sarah from across the crowded living room.” Dialog must be natural and organic. Obvious dialog is boring. “Hello, Sarah. Wow, you sure do dance well. Isn’t this a fun party?” Don’t write obvious dialog.

    3: Are you revealing people and story elements strategically in your scenes? Don’t show everything immediately. An example of what not to do is this – “5 tough guys are sitting around a poker table. A mound of chips is sitting in the middle of the table.” Instead, it should be like this – “Nervous eyes glance to the left. We see another guy meet the glance and look down. He’s holding 5 cards. A third guy pushes chips toward the huge pile at the center of the table.” Do you recognize the difference?

    4: Are you maintaining your audience’s attention at every moment? You must. Keep them in a constant state of anticipation. If you follow the previous 3 suggestions, you’re on your way to holding the attention of your audience.

    5: Are you starting your scenes at the beginning? Don’t. Come into a scene that is already underway. This technique engages the audience immediately – the audience feels they are ‘catching up’ and as a result, pay closer attention to what is going on, because clearly there was something going on previously.

    6: Are your scenes too long? Keep your scenes short. You can have 1 to 3 set pieces (longer scenes) in your script, but keep the other scenes short.

    7: Have you had your script read out loud? It doesn’t count if you read it out loud to yourself. Have a private or public reading. You will be surprised how helpful it is to hear your script read out loud. Don’t know any actors? Maybe a local theater troupe would be willing to help out. In fact, they would more than likely jump at the chance! If you decide to have a public reading, good for you. You never know who may be in your audience (i.e. potential investors, etc).

    8: Have you sent your screenplay to friends and colleagues? They will give you feedback that you can benefit from right now. Be patient and be open to input. Now is the time to adjust and rewrite – before production starts.

    9: Is your script a page turner? It must grab the reader from half way through the first page – or sooner!

    Take my advice and follow these suggestions now so you stack the cards in your favor. Remember, your script is the foundation to your movie. Would you build a skyscraper on a bog? Of course not. Can you make a great movie from a weak script? I have heard too many filmmakers say “Oh, it will be great! I’ll work out all the kinks on the set.” That approach never works. Never.

    I don’t remember who wrote it, but it’s very helpful.
    I wish you a lovely evenig :-)claudine

  2. This is a great way to explain show vs. tell. I’ve struggled with it for years, and I know I’m prone to telling, but I believe what you read really influences how you write and I read a lot of things that were written two hundred years ago, which might explain my propensity to tell rather than show.

    Where was this explanation five years ago? It would have made my first (horrible) draft much easier to clean up! 😀

  3. The best book I’ve read on how to show and not tell is ‘Show Don’t Tell: The Ultimate Writers’ Guide’ by Robyn Opie Parnell. She explains it really well and gives lots of examples and exercises to do.

    You’ve explained it well also. 🙂

  4. I think another thing to point out about this example is that the example revision of telling to showing actually results in a dynamic character, who comes off the page as a person, rather than a flat sketch. By really putting the character into motion there, you get two (maybe more?) things done. You make the story more interesting and also the character comes to life.

  5. Pingback: Writing Advice Continued: From Claudine | The Struggling Writer

  6. Hey – I really enjoyed this post. I almost wrote a similar one yesterday as the whole “Show, Don’t Tell” is a criticism I deal with often as a new writer. Thankfully, I have picked up some useful tips such as spending time describing photos, free-writing, and keeping a journal of random strangers. All has seemed to help so far. Anyways, I look forward to reading more of your blog. Please feel free to check out mine as well.

    Take care!

  7. No, I will not follow your insane rule of “show, don’t tell”. Identifying withn a character is considered a sign o0f perversion and corruption b me, and so I will not desire any of my readers to do so. As a reader, I want to stand outside and above the narrated story. Under no circumstances whatsoever would I tolerate being involved in it; ergo.I write in an editorial omniscient manner with rhetorical reader address. None of your diatribes will ever be able to alter my style towards your taste.

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