Understanding the “Show, don’t Tell” technique to writing great fiction.
Author: N. Strauss
Is the main character of your story a sweet, caring person? Was the divorce all her husband’s fault? Was she right to set fire to his car?
Let your readers make up their own minds, based on the evidence.
Think of a courtroom. The defendant insists he is innocent of killing his business partner. However, certain suspicious details come out in the trial. For instance, he wrote a threatening note to his partner the day before the crime, he was identified running away from the crime scene with a bloody axe in his hand, and the police later found this axe hidden under his bed. What are you going to believe?
Seeing is believing, as the saying goes. So is hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. People trust physical evidence more than they trust a stranger’s word for anything.
But what does this have to do with fiction writing?
Don’t TELL the reader that your character is a sweet person. SHOW her caring tenderly for her sick father. Don’t TELL the reader that your character’s husband is a lying cheat. SHOW how he phones his wife from his mistress’s bed and tells her some story about how he’ll be home late because he’s visiting her sick father in the hospital. The impact on the reader will be a lot more powerful.
What do I mean by “tell” and “show” in the context of a story?
Here’s an example of “telling”:
- The waitress was very rude.
And here’s an example of “showing.”
- “Here’s your stupid sandwich already,” the waitress muttered, slamming the plate down on the table so hard that the couple next to us turned around to stare.
Here’s another example of “telling.”
- It was a hot day.
And here’s showing:
- Her blouse stuck to the small of her back and sweat rolled down her thighs as she trudged up the parched lawn to the house, where a collie lay panting in the thin shadow offered by the porch swing.
You might notice some benefits to showing versus telling:
1. “Showing” is more interesting to read.
2. “Showing” creates a more vivid mental image.
3. “Showing” provides more information.
4. “Showing” is convincing. If I just tell you that the waitress was rude, you might wonder if she was really as bad as I say. For all you know, I might just have unrealistically high standards of customer service. With the “showing” example, you can make up your own mind.
5. “Showing” lets you do multiple things at once. You can show the reader that the waitress is rude at the same time that you deliver a sandwich to your character and bring some other customers into the scene.
“But if the waitress was rude, can’t I just say she was rude?”
Of course you can. And there are some situations where you should.
Here are some reasons for “telling” instead of “showing.”
- If the scene is unimportant to your story.
- If you’re just trying to give some background information to the reader.
- If “showing” will bore the reader. You might tell me that your character’s annoying uncle repeated the same sermon about thankfulness a million times during Thanksgiving dinner. But don’t make ME listen to the sermon over and over again.
Here’s an exercise for you to practice “showing” instead of “telling.” Replace the following “telling” sentences with “showing” ones.
Telling: Joan is a terribly messy person.
Showing: “Cool, there’s my sandwich!” Joan exclaimed triumphantly, noticing yesterday’s meatball sub protruding from the heap of dirty laundry on the back seat of her car.
Now you try it.
Telling: Mary was a neat freak.
Telling: It was a cold morning.
Telling: Steven was very nervous about his job interview.
Now here are a couple of story ideas that you can use to write fiction that convinces the reader by “showing” instead of “telling.” You’ll find more ideas in the Story Starters section of the Creative Writing Now website.
- Two old friends get together for dinner after a long time apart. One of them is secretly in love with the other one. Show this, don’t tell it.
- Your character brings her new boyfriend home to meet her parents. This new boyfriend is bad news. Her parent see that the guy is a jerk, but they don’t want to tell their daughter what they really think. Show the scene. But… do NOT tell the reader explicitly that the boyfriend is a jerk. Do NOT tell the reader outright what the parents think. Do NOT have the parents discuss the matter directly with their daughter. Instead, make the reader see and feel it all. And, eventually, make the daughter realize the truth as well.