Show Don't Tell – Our Write Side

February 23, 2016

It’s a mantra we’ve all heard a million times before. And it’s a good rule to follow because it makes your writing immersive and vivid while removing the author. But what tenants should we follow exactly? Let’s explore.

Should we never use telling? There is a time and place for simply making a statement instead of showing. Showing passage of time and to connect two scenes are one instance. If a few weeks have passed, simply state that and move on with the scene. Including backstory is another acceptable instance. We want to be brief and concise about backstory. Also, details that are not important shouldn’t get a lot of page time either. Otherwise it gives the reader the wrong idea.

Hans / Pixabay

So those are times when it’s okay to tell rather than show. So how do we show not tell? First by accessing all five senses in our descriptions. By avoiding telling verbs like heard, saw, thought, wondered, etc. And by using strong verbs and concrete nouns instead of adjectives and adverbs. Say the middle-aged man collapsed into the worn leather armchair rather than the man sat down in the chair exhaustedly. Specific nouns and strong verbs bring your descriptions to life.

Focus on describing the effects instead of the causes of the effects. Don’t say it’s raining, show the cold water sloshing in your character’s shoes as they run into the house. Stay away from was phrases: the sun was shining, she was happy, the sun was bright, etc. Use active verbs instead.

Too much description can lead to heavy-handed writing or purple prose. A good balance to aim for is one statement (telling) for every two to three descriptions (showing). Describe things like setting, character description, actions, language and voice, and unique details. One or two unique details will give your reader an overall impression of what you’re trying to describe.

Well there you have the Show Don’t Tell rule. What tips do you have for this rule? Comment below and for more information on this rule read here and follow me here and on twitter. Happy writing.