Show v. Tell : WTF does that mean, anyway?


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Confused? Don’t worry; even cartoon squid have trouble with this concept.

Hello fellow writers!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on the subject of writing craft, so today I’m going to tackle one universal subject: The cardinal rule of “Show; Don’t Tell.”

For those who don’t know, this rule states that it’s generally preferable to demonstrate exposition than to explicitly state things. To put it in more basic terms, you get a better idea of things when you see them for yourself than when someone just describes them to you.

SHOW AND TELL: DEFINITIONS

This topic will go more smoothly with a few examples:

Literary TELLING = “Andrew was mad.”
It’s an adjective, but it also has a few meanings; Is Andrew British-insane? Or is he American-angry? There’s room for guesses but without context there’s no room for interpretation. Plus, it doesn’t move the narrative anywhere.

Literary SHOWING = “Andrew scowled, grumbling to himself.”
Here we see Andrew DOing some things. Things some people do when they’re angry. Except now, the readers are allowed to interpret for themselves how Andrew is feeling instead of having the narrator dictate.

What’s the big difference?

Why should you, as a writer, care? Well, think of it like a spoiler. Instead of letting the reader get to the conclusion (Andrew’s anger) by reading the text and using their own brain, you solved the puzzle for them by spoiling (stating explixcitly) what happened.

ADJECTIVES VS. VERBS

A good rule of thumb for anyone who’s trying to show instead of tell is to examine the type of words you’re using. Anyone who’s had a good beta reader will know that adjectives, while useful, can be an addiction. They’re just so easy!

How was Nancy behaving? “Her behavior was atrocious.” What was the child feeling? “He felt joyful!”

How did that work out for you? Can anyone picture atrocious behavior? Anybody picture a joyful feeling? Now let’s try it with verbs–verbs are words of ACTION and the old adage is that actions speak louder than words, right?

“Nancy stood, flipping the table over, then turned on her heel and stomped out of the room.”
“The child looked up at me, a grin stretching the corners of his mouth.”

Paints a clearer picture, don’t you think?

Adjectives can also be helpful and sometimes even necessary–hell, EVERY color is an adjective–just limit yourself to what’s NEEDED to SHOW the story.

Of course, I’m only using simple examples–emotions have pretty clear indicators we can use to show people what’s going on. That’s why we need to practice…

Practice Makes Perfect

If there is one hard and fast rule of writing, this is it.
So I’m giving you homework!
Ok, so the assignment is optional, but if you want to get better at showing, you gotta practice sometime.

Here’s the goal–ready?
Pick your favorite fairy-tale and rewrite a passage from it. Fairy tales are very often filled with telling v. showing moments because they have their basis in oral tradition. So pick a passage from your favorite and SHOW us something.
Is the crone old? SHOW us: “The skin hung from her hand as her fingers clung to the cane. Her eyes, though withered by age seemed to see me through the cataracts.”

Get creative! and post some examples in the comments!
Are you a reader? Tell us how you feel about showing versus telling?

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4 thoughts on “Show v. Tell : WTF does that mean, anyway?

  1. Have you ever read books where they show and then tell? JR Ward is particularly guilty of this, with sentences like, “He scowled and stomped his feet. It was as if he were very angry.” Drives me crazy! (Not enough to stop reading her books, though. Because bisexual vampires! Kinky ghost sex! Weird poisoned body parts! I have high class taste right here.)

    • Man, that would drive me nuts!
      Speaks to me of padding wordcount, know what I mean?
      I actually heard of her books through your blog. Never picked her books up though–bisexual romance is interesting, but I’m so sick of vampires!

      P.S. – You get that ‘thing’ I sent you?

      • [You already know this but – yes! (And I already said this but I really do love it!)]

        It actually does drive me crazy, though. It’s got to be either padding word count or a belief that your core audience is rather dim.

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