Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Show Don’t Tell – Make Your Story Come Alive

One of the most important things for new writers to learn, and almost the hardest to learn as well, is to show instead of tell. Your writing needs to show us what happens, not tell us what happens. For example, don’t describe the kind of person your character is or how your character feels, let the reader discover character traits and feelings through actions, thoughts, body language, and speech. So, if your character is annoyed, don’t tell us he’s annoyed, show us he’s annoyed by what he says or in his facial expression. The same thing with setting, don’t describe your setting, show us your setting by using the five senses. If it’s raining, you don’t say it’s raining. You say the downpour soaked my clothes. You don’t say it’s cold. You say, he shivered or he brushed the snow out his hair.

The way to tell if you’re showing, instead of telling, is if your reader has to figure out for himself what your reader is thinking, feeling, or doing. If you spell everything out for your readers, you’re telling. The point is that your writing needs to show us everything about your world. The reader doesn’t want to be told about your world, he wants to live it and feel it. Showing lets that happen.

Later this week I’ll have a little more to say about showing versus telling. In the meantime, tell me why you think showing versus telling is so important.


  1. I think one of the reasons showing is important is because it mimics the way we experience life. We don't have a commentator whispering in our ear constantly: "Careful, she's angry about something" or "He's hungry, that's all." (This would, however, make parenting of young children much easier.) No, we have to interpret visual, auditory and other sensory clues to figure out what is going under the surface of our personal interactions and even within ourselves sometimes. So it makes sense that we prefer to experience story this way as well.

  2. Lana, good insight. It's interesting too that as writers we sometimes want to tell instead of show to make sure that our readers interpret those clues correctly. However, in real life we don't always interpret those clues correctly, and that's sometimes what adds a little excitement and tension to our lives. It's the same in stories. It's okay if readers interpret the clues in different ways because that has the potential to add more dimension and depth to our stories.

  3. Exactly! This happens to me frequently in my critique group. My critique partners interpret a certain character's actions in their own ways and I just smile and nod because all of the interpretations work for the story.

    Of course, the major motivating forces in the story have to be crystal clear. But when a writer creates strong characters and rich storytelling, readers add their own ideas and life experience and that's when the real magic happens.