The first time I heard the advice “show, don’t tell,” I was young and it confused me.
Show what? Isn’t writing all about telling a story?
At the time, I shrugged it off as some kind of mysterious double-talk, but the phrase kept popping up: show, don’t tell.
It rolled off my teachers’ tongues. I spotted it in books and articles on the craft of writing. A couple of times, it appeared in red on my papers with an arrow pointing to a specific sentence or paragraph. Then I took a poetry class and had a big aha moment where show, don’t tell became abundantly clear.
In poetry studies, we talk a lot about imagery. This poem has vivid imagery. What a great image! The images in the first stanza don’t go with the images in the second stanza. This kind of talk didn’t make sense to me either. Images in poems? We’re supposed to be writing, not drawing!
The irony, of course, is that my writing was packed with imagery; I was more prone to showing than telling. Nevertheless, the phrasing of these writing tips perplexed me.
Since then, I’ve worked with plenty of young and new writers who have expressed embarrassment at having to admit they’re not sure what show, don’t tell means.
Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell is often doled out as writing advice, and it frequently appears on lists of writing tips. It even has its own Wikipedia page! Along with the advice “write what you know” and “know your audience,” it’s one of those writing-related adages that deserves some explanation because it seems counterintuitive and raises a bunch of questions.
Yet it’s actually a simple concept. Ironically, the best way to explain it is to show, rather than tell, what it means, and I don’t think anybody’s done that better than Anton Checkhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov (source: Goodreads)
Oh, I Get It
I once heard a lecturer give a talk about love, and he made a good point: it’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you have to show people that you love them through your actions.
We can apply the same concept to writing.
You can tell your readers that two characters met and were instantly attracted to each other, or you could show the characters meeting, making eye contact, and checking each other out. He gulps, she bats her eyelashes, and readers get the picture.
When you show, you’re using words to create a scene that readers instantly visualize. Instead of intellectually registering what you’re telling them, they fully imagine what you’re showing them.
We can turn Checkhov’s explanation into a writing exercise in which we show, don’t tell readers our ideas:
|Kate was tired.
|Kate rubbed her eyes and willed herself to keep them open.
|It was early spring.
|New buds were pushing through the frost.
|Charlie was blind.
|Charlie wore dark glasses and was accompanied by a seeing-eye dog.
|Sheena is a punk rocker.
|Sheena has three piercings in her face and wears her hair in a purple mohawk.
|James was the captain.
|“At ease,” James called out before relaxing into the Captain’s chair.
Now you try it. Think of some simple ideas that you could show readers instead of telling them.
Are there any writing tips that you hear frequently but don’t quite grasp? Share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment, and make sure when you’re writing, you show, don’t tell.