Every writer, at some point, has heard the adage “show, don’t tell,” and has nodded gravely. Oh yes, I know what that means. Just, you know, show, and don’t tell. Right? Right. Well, for those who are as clueless as I was about this saying back in my youth (when we had car phones and T-rexes roamed the Earth), let’s have a refresher course—because agents and editors (and readers) do not respond to telling.
I’m going to focus on fiction, on narrative prose, but this concept can be applied to creative non-fiction as well. As writers, we want to immerse the reader in our world, to create a vivid playground, complete with metal slides that sear your thighs in summer and monkey bars that inevitably lead to a broken limb. The easiest way to draw a reader into your world is to paint a picture—don’t tell a reader what is happening; show them.
Remember: telling simply lists actions and emotions, but showing generates pictures in a reader’s imagination. The distinction? Think a grocery list vs. the actual milk and veggies.
Here’s an example of telling when it comes to feelings:
Jim was angry. (Tell)
Okay, we get it. We now know how Jim feels, but did this sentence evoke any sort of visceral response? Did you feel his anger?
Jim balled his fists and clenched his jaw. “What in the Sam Hill is going on?” (Show)
This shows Jim is angry and shows how Jim reacts to anger. This gives you a picture of Jim as well as clues about his character in a way that the first “tell” sentence does not.
And what about your characters’ personalities? Which of the following sentences is more effective?
Sarah was high-strung. (Tell)
Sarah gritted her teeth. “For God’s sake, put the knife blades facing in towards the plates!” (Show)
The second example of showing reveals Sarah’s personality through action and dialogue instead of simply stating or telling the reader about Sarah’s character. It’s much more constructive to show a character’s personality this way. Showing creates a more instinctive reaction in the reader. Showing makes the reader believe. Telling sounds forced; you aren’t going to convince your readers that a character is high strung just because you tell them this. You must convince by showing. Dialogue is a very effective way to do so.
Another example of effective dialogue usage (showing) would be the difference between:
“The two women exchanged their morning greetings.” (Tell)
“Hey, girl, what’s up?” Tonia asked.
“Nothing, what’s going on with you?” Elizabeth said.
“Just trying to survive another day with that a-hole.”
“Let’s shoot him.”
“I wish.” (Show)
The show with dialogue vividly illustrates the women’s voices and their relationship, while the tell shows us nothing about the women.
Showing is also about alleviating obscurity.
“The teen looked poor and downtrodden.” (Tell)
“The teen ambled in, his greasy hair hanging in thin ropes around his gaunt face. A musk permeated the air around him, reminiscent of beef tacos and cigarettes. His waistband barely held onto bony hips, while frayed polyester boxer shorts peeked out from the back.” (Show)
The second example paints a picture—it shows the reader what the teen looks like instead of telling. Much more effective.
So what have we learned? Well, telling is not nearly as valuable as showing. Use sights, smells, sounds, a sense of touch . . . paint a picture. Use dialogue and description. Now for a pop quiz. Rewrite the following as “show” instead of “tell.” (Feel free to email me your “show” sentences for editorial feedback.) My stab at showing will follow.
Sindra always tried to be the perfect child . . . on the outside. (Tell)
What did you come up with in order to paint a picture? I decided to add in some dialogue and description to show more vividly Sindra’s character as “the perfect child.”
Sindra frowned and rubbed at a black smudge stubbornly clinging to her polished, white loafers. Shoot fire, Mama will kill me! She glanced up at her mother, talking with Reverend Peterson. The balding, frail man smiled down at her and Sindra was tempted to give a bow or a curtsy in deference.
“Isn’t that right, Sindra?” Mama was saying.
“What? . . . I mean, excuse me, ma’am?” Sindra asked, straightening her shoulders.
“I was just telling the reverend how you were looking forward to volunteering in the soup kitchen.”
Ugh. “Yes, I very much look forward to it, Reverend.”
He nodded and Sindra tried not to roll her eyes.
The second example shows that Sindra has a sassy personality but is stuck in a “perfect child” role that her family and community force her to play. Her voice and character take the stage via dialogue, thoughts, and action. This is much more effective than telling the reader about her personality, don’t you think?
Now you have some concrete examples that illustrate effective show versus tell. Practice on your own using dialogue, action, and descriptions with sights, sounds, touch, and smells. Paint a picture for your reader—be the Degas of literature. Create your own dancing ballerinas. Make your narrative and characters come alive! “Telling” leaves your characters and narrative dead on the page. And no one wants that stinky, ineffectual mess. Instead, become the greatest showman (or woman) on Earth!
Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com.