What ‘Show Me, Don’t Tell Me’ Really Means

The first rule of Creative Writing is Show Me, Don’t Tell Me. And yet, I find this rule violated constantly when I am asked to read the drafts written by my friends or in writing groups. And to tell the truth, I find myself guilty of doing it from time to time. I feel that this idea is repeated without being explained. Writers often do not know how to show, or better yet, they they should show.

The Value Of Showing

Showing your readers what is going on, as opposed to just telling them, is the glimmer of the beautiful that illuminates your tale, and it lets everyone see how delightful your story actually is. On the other hand, telling is boring. Action is the key. When you show, you show the action of the story. When you tell, you describe things.

And while showing the action involves the details of movement, it is possible to get so caught up in showing that your details become the story, and then it becomes tedious. You want your action to move at an exciting pace for the reader. It’s the wonderful combination of showing the action with just as many details as you need told in a pace that keeps your reader interested that helps contribute to the process of writing interesting prose.

One of the best ways to see if you are telling and not showing is to examine your verbs. Being verbs do not show action. Any sentence that says that a certain person is this or that more than likely needs to be changed. Don’t tell me the woman was thrilled, show me. Also, some of our action verbs can be improved upon. For example, don’t say that someone walked into a room when you can say stomped, sauntered, ambled, skipped, or many other things more descriptive than walked.

A Way To Fix It

Consider these telling sentences: “The man became angry.” “She went to the store.” “The boy hid his report card.” All of these sentences are as boring as broth. The way you fix them is to see the scene in your mind and describe the action. Visualization is the key to fixing the telling problem. Consider these possible solutions for our problem sentences.

The man became angry – The man’s eyes bounced from left to right as if he were at Centre Court at Wimbledon. When he finished reading the letter, his face grew red and it shook. He braced his eyes shut, and the few tears that could escape vanished into the sweat. He ripped the letter into shreds and cast then into the fireplace. But in a moment of clarity he knelt by the hearth and watched the words of his beloved burn and crinkle.

She went to the store – She scattered about the kitchen like a pinball being bounced between posts. All the while she continually muttered, “How can I be out of baking soda?” She rested her palms on the countertop and braced herself up while she took in deep breathes to catch her wind. He looked up at the clock. Thirty-five minutes before her husband would leave work.  With his commute she had about an hour, so she grabbed her purse, slipped on her shoes, and hollered “Keep an eye on the baby” to her eldest as she breezed through the door.

The boy hid his report card – As the boy turned the corner onto his block, his heart rate doubled. All the while as he walked home from school he stared at his report card, even ignoring the traffic of cars when he crossed streets. That one D in Social Studies stared back at him. Once at home and in his room, he knew the only reprieve came from hiding his card, so he frantically searched for the right spot. He lifted the corner of his mattress but remembered that he had been found out hiding thing there before. He looked at the stack of papers at the top of his closet, but they were in such a clutter that he might not find it ever. He backed into his shelves of CDs, nearly toppling them down to the floor. In an instant, his brown unfurrows and a grin recovers his face. He opens a CD case and shoved the card inside Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative.

When You Can Tell

Those were just a few quick examples. You can probably do better. They illustrate how simple telling sentences can be turned into wonderful showing scenes. And yet there are times when telling is permissible, if not unavoidable. One instance would be if you are giving some aspect of a character that requires a flashback to show it, but a flashback would be out of place. For example, let’s say you have a character who works as a bank teller, but he also once robbed a bank. Do you need to make a fully developed scene of this robbery? You could, but maybe this would not fit in the story and only detract. Here I think it would be permissible to say something like, “He went to work for his first day as a bank teller, and as he settled in he chuckled to himself how this would have been a much easier bank to rob than the one he held up just a few years ago.” Maybe being a teller is not vital to the story, so the robbery does not need to be fully blown out, but is worth mentioning as character development. I would only show the robbery in flashback if the story is about a teller specifically, or better yet, a bank robbery.

Another time when telling is allowed is when you are using a metaphor. By its very nature any comparison is nothing but telling. There is no action in a metaphor. And still, metaphors are so much fun to write. Even their ugly cousin the simile is worth knowing. In my samples previously I used such comparisons as being at a tennis match or a pinball bouncing between posts. No action, not even with the pinball (Remember, telling your reader that some action took place is far inferior to showing the action, which my simile did not do).

The other situation that allows telling is if it is followed by immediate showing. The example of our young boy began with the telling of his plans to hide the card before I showed him trying to hide it. Sometimes this setup works to put the action in a context. I am sure that if I skipped to his looking for a hiding place the reader could still figure out what he was trying to do. But when I tell that he needs to hide the card, the subsequent action has a clear context.

Demonstration trumps description, and action is the battery that sparks a well-written story. I hope that by now you see the value for it as well as the way to do it, even if there may be times when you do not need it. Here is one more place where telling is allowed. If this article helped you at all, tell me about it in the Comment section below. Your input would be appreciated.


1 Comment

Filed under Creative Writing

One response to “What ‘Show Me, Don’t Tell Me’ Really Means

  1. Lisa

    Great examples!

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