What Do They Mean by “Show, Don’t Tell”?

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As writers, we constantly get told to “Show, don’t tell”. Now that’s easy for them to say, but what does that even mean? How do we “show” something? How do we know that we are “telling” instead? It’s all too confusing. I’ll try to explain, because I didn’t have a clue what they were on about.

When you “tell”, it means that you are giving too much info in terms of things like emotions. If you say that your character felt sad, you’re giving it a name and feeding that exact emotion to the reader, but being told doesn’t have the same effect as “showing” them. The way to “show” the reader what your character is feeling is to NOT give it a name. Describe the feeling instead. For example:

Telling:

I felt sad.

Showing:

Tears stung my eyes and I tried to swallow past the lump in my throat.

I hope you can see how much more interesting it is when you don’t just spoon-feed your readers. If you show them, they feel things more deeply and it is easier for them to imagine themselves in that situation. Give them room to make up their own mind about what your character is feeling.

Below is a more in-depth example to illustrate my point. I hope it’s helpful to you.

Telling:

I walked into the room and saw my boyfriend kissing another girl. I felt very angry. He tried to explain, but I screamed at him and ran out of the room.

Showing:

I pushed the door open and saw my boyfriend standing with his lips stuck to another girl’s mouth and one hand up the front of her top.

I froze. Adrenalin shot through my body and I couldn’t breathe. They broke apart and turned to look at me. There was no air in the room. My face felt cold, like all the blood had rushed to my feet.

“Cassy! I – I can explain!”

I somehow found my voice. “You bastard! How could you?”

My voice trembled and I felt the heat rise inside me, spreading to every limb and up to my face. I couldn’t be here. I had to leave. Had to get out. I turned and ran out of the room, ignoring his calls for me to stop.

As I ran, I noticed that my palms were hurting and realised that I’d clenched my fists so hard that I’d dug my fingernails into the skin. I didn’t stop to see if I’d drawn blood.

Which one did you like best? The Showing or the Telling?

Are there places in your writing that could be improved by showing and not telling? Are there any examples in your writing or in your favourite book that you’d like to share? Put them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “What Do They Mean by “Show, Don’t Tell”?

    brittneysahin said:
    May 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    I am fixing this in my book right now! I thought I had done a decent job- but my editor still found a lot of “telling moments” I need to change. But it is so much better after the fix!!

      Susan Carter, Author said:
      May 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Hi Brittney! I’m so glad that this helped you. It took me a long time to really understand what they meant by the saying.

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