The verb, to write, refers to the act of stringing words together in order to coherently communicate thoughts or information. But the act of writing and being a talented writer may be worlds apart. A writer is an individual who employs technical writing skills and literary artistry to convey thoughts or information in an interesting and compelling manner — a writing technique referred to as “show, don’t tell.”
Aspiring writers are taught “show, don’t tell” by making use of sensory details in their storytelling. By employing select verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and dialogue, the author paints a vivid mental picture while avoiding tedious expositions. Read on to learn all about the concept of show, don’t tell, and how it can significantly enhance the reader experience.
What is Show, Don’t Tell in Writing?
Considering that the purpose of authorship is to create a meaningful reader experience, it is easy to understand the importance of using the show, don’t tell writing style. This style provides a more colorful, immersive experience for the reader, bringing them right into the action and connecting them emotionally with the characters.
To execute the show, don’t tell strategy effectively, the author is challenged to use restraint when depicting scenes. Rather than writing a verbose, rambling description of the action or setting, a skilled writer selects their words judiciously. The result is to show the action using an immersive descriptive language versus a literal description.
Show, Don’t Tell in Writing
Lest you think that this show, don’t tell technique is a modern one, note that some of the literary giants of the past used this style to great effect. Consider these show, don’t tell examples:
Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray
W.M. Thackeray depicts a grimy, decadent scene using just the right amount of adjectives to create the desired visual.
“The front is patched over with bills, setting forth the particulars of the furniture in staring capitals. They have hung a shred of carpet out of an upstairs window—a half dozen of porters are lounging on the dirty steps—the hall swarms with dingy guests of oriental countenance, who thrust printed cards into your hand, and offer to bid.”
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury executes show, don’t tell by using powerful metaphors, painting intense mental imagery of the book burnings that is both visual and didactic.
“He could hear Beatty’s voice. “Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh? Light the third page from the second and so on, chainsmoking, chapter by chapter, all the silly things the words mean, all the false promises, all the second-hand notions and time-worn philosophies.”
Showing vs. Telling
So, what exactly does show, don’t tell mean? What is the difference between showing vs. telling?
To summarize the concept of show, don’t tell:
Showing: Showing creates a visual masterpiece in the reader’s mind, illustrating select aspects of a scene using sensory details.
Telling: Telling involves stating the facts or rote details of the scene, character, or action.
Of the two writing styles, telling is the inferior technique. It takes much greater skill to describe a setting or scene using creative and immersive language than writing a droll depiction of the scene or character.
Show, Don’t Tell Examples
By contrasting show and tell, using actual examples of each, it can help a fiction writer grasp the show, don’t tell concept. Here are some examples of show vs. tell:
Description Over Exposition
Which of these two sentences paints a more compelling visual for the reader?
- Tell: Julie ran very fast to reach the house.
- Show: Julie leaped over the wheelbarrow and stumbled over potholes on her mad dash to the house.
No doubt the reader would be more engaged in the action when reading the show example. The tell example is simplistic and dull, in contrast with the show version, where the reader can experience Julie’s energy and struggle.
Dialogue Over Exposition
In many instances, a character is better able to smoothly convey plot twists using dialogue over exposition.
- Tell: Driving at high speed, Sam seemed to straighten out the curves in the road with his adroit command of the vehicle.
- Dialogue: “Ya better hold on tight! I’m about to put to good use all those years I spent racing go-karts,” Sam declared.
Using dialogue, the author is still able to relay the information that Sam is speeding down the road, but in a way that reveals his daredevil personality.
Use Bold Verbs
Word selection is everything. Decide for yourself which version provides more engaging writing:
- Tell: London had sure seen better days, and anyone visiting the city for the first time in years was bound to leave with a poor impression.
- Show: “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours” [from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens]
Don’t Overdo It
Exposition, or the tell method, can result in an info dump that can quickly bore the reader.
- Tell: The robber entered the bank building at half-past two, forcing his way up to the teller’s window and demanding she gather all the available cash and hand it over to him so he could stuff it into his backpack and bolt.
- Show: The teller instinctively shuddered, certain that the man in black barreling toward her was a thief, and that her life was suddenly in danger.
Note that using the show, don’t tell method informs the reader of the basic action without bombarding them with excessive details.
Now that you understand showing vs. telling better, it is time to get to writing! If you are considering the self-publishing route, work with Gatekeeper Press. We offer a wide range of professional services for authors to take advantage of.
Show Don’t Tell With Gatekeeper Press
For most of us, great writing doesn’t just happen. Learning how to provide important details about the story without getting bogged down in exposition takes practice… and a great editor. Gatekeeper Press provides a range of editing services to help you polish your manuscript and ready it for publication. Schedule a free consultation with us today!