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Show Me, Don't Tell Me


March 7, 2021

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Shirley Bear Fedorak


Most writers have heard the adage, “show, don’t tell,” but what does it mean? Simply put, showing the story, the action, or a character’s emotions and behavior pulls the reader deeper into the story. Showing is particularly crucial when dealing with emotions. Don’t tell a reader the character is sad, happy, or nervous, show it.

Here’s an example of telling:

I noticed John was angry.

In this example, a first-person narrator is telling the reader that John is angry, but that is all. The sentence is empty; it lacks setting and character, or any form of context.

Let’s try it again.

John punched a hole in the wall with his fist and cursed a blue streak. “Why did she have to leave?”

Now in this example, several new elements come to light. First, the “I noticed” is gone. Noticed is a telling word and takes the reader out of the story and into the narrator’s point of view. Instead, the reader jumps right into the action and sees it through the character’s eyes (pov). Punching his fist into the wall is a pretty good indicator that John is angry. The dialogue adds another clue to his anger and perhaps sadness.

Let’s add another level.

Jane slammed the car door and sped away without another word.

John gritted his teeth and punched a hole in the wall with his fist. “Why did she leave me?”

In this version, a bit of setting is created. Readers will picture them outside, possibly on a driveway. John’s action and dialogue show his anger, but with more context.

Both of the above examples, although slightly different in their approach, show John’s anger and sorrow. They also show us John’s volatile temper and that perhaps Jane was smart to leave.

Here’s an example from my upcoming book, Rainbow Warriors:

Fissures in the side of the mountain bulged like an old man burping.

Now in my first draft, I wrote: I saw fissures in the side of the mountain bulge like an old man burping. In my second draft I eliminated all (I hope) of the “telling” words like saw.

Here is a brief list of words that indicate telling rather than showing: thought, wondered, eyed, pondered, noticed, looked, made, caused, hoped, touched, decided, considered, regarded, looked around, starting to, try, remembered, felt, saw, watched, smelled, observed, heard, immediately, realized, know/knew, could feel, could see, could hear, could smell.

Telling a story is easier, more straightforward, and doesn’t require the reader to interpret the story or use their imagination, nor does telling challenge the writer to become a true storyteller. But what is the fun in that?

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