Writing Tips: Show, Don't Tell

One of the common pieces of literary advice is “show, don't tell”, but what exactly does this mean?

The phrase harkens back to Plato, and his theory that there were two methods of presenting a story: Diegesis (telling) and Mimesis (imitating or showing). In essence, 'telling' the story was achieved by a narrator: a force that was either within the story (1st person point-of-view) recounting the events to the reader, or outside of the story (3rd person point-of-view) presenting the events. 'Showing', on the other hand, presents the story's events without implication, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions and (ideally) resonate with the characters and events.

Over time, these definitions have shifted to reflect the writing style rather than the narration itself. The methods of 'showing' can be applied to any point-of-view and tense. While 'telling' has its place in historical, educational or technical texts, 'showing' is typically the prescribed method in fiction.

In order to better explain the difference between the two methods, consider the following scene, first 'told' and then 'shown':

  1. Mark stood on the outskirts of the circle, looking off into the woods. He felt afraid because he was sure he heard something moving in the dark.
  2. Mark took a deep breath, planting his feet on the outskirts of the circle. His glance roved over the line of trees, searching, heart pounding. There's something out there, he thought, feeling his mouth go dry.

For sake of comparison, both use the same point-of-view (3rd person), tense (past), and structure (active sentences).

When 'telling', you inform the reader of how people are feeling and what they are thinking by use of adjectives and verbs. A narrator's assumptions are the framework through which the reader experiences the story. This can hamper suspense, and can distance the reader from connecting with the characters. The reader becomes observant, but not involved in the experiences or plot.

By 'showing', you use description of body language, experiences, and sensations so that the reader identifies with the experience. Through evoking the 5 senses, it enables your reader to feel the corresponding emotions right alongside the character. They can sympathize with what the character is experiencing, instead of just what is happening to them. This can make the characters seem more real, less static, and more relatable. The reader connects to the world through the character's perception.

When your readers connect, they become invested in the plot, curious to see what will happen (a 'page-turner'), and to care about the characters. The reader suffers in their struggles, and rejoices in their triumphs, resulting in a story that will make an impression and become memorable. This transportation is considered the mark of a skilled writer.

Next time you want to tell a reader what happens next, consider instead what it would look or sound or smell like. Transport your reader and watch your characters come alive.

Written by Astra Crompton
Edited by Brian Cliffen

Image c/o Shutterstock