T is for Telling Versus Showing
The Perpetual Thorn in the Writer’s Side
You will hear “Show, don’t tell” every time you pick up a book on writing, sit in on a seminar, take an online class, or attend a conference. Yet showing remains one of the hardest skills to put into practice. No matter how long you’ve been writing, the temptation to tell persists. Telling is easier, faster, and sometimes telling can get the job done.
But to really pull an emotional punch and suck your reader in, it’s a good idea to move beyond the telling and dig into the showing.
Definition of telling: Simply saying outright what the character feels.
Example: Beth was happy.
Definition of showing: Painting a visual word picture of what the character feels—usually without using the actual feeling word. Sorry, Beth, we can’t say you’re happy. We need to show you being happy instead.
Beth slid across the floor, twirled in a tight circle, smiled and clapped her hands.
The word happy is nowhere in that sentence, yet we know happy is how she’s feeling.
Telling: Ben was mad at Jerry for dancing with his girlfriend.
Big deal. We know Ben is mad. But do we feel it? Not so much. Do we care what happens to Ben or Jerry?
Showing: Ben stepped inside the doorway and paused. Not ten feet away, Jerry danced with Anna. His Anna. Jerry held her close, hands on her slim hips, hips that weren’t his to touch. They swayed to the music, barely any space between them. Anna had her eyes closed.
Ben’s mouth pulled tight. So much for trusting his best friend. He had a choice to make—turn around and walk away or punch Jerry in the face. He pulled his hands into fists at his sides and took a step forward. Jerry just lost best friend status and moved to the other list.
Here you are feeling poor Ben’s anguish at losing his girl to Jerry. So sad.
Want an easy way to test your tell vs. show?
Ask yourself two questions.
- Did I use a “feeling” word instead of painting an emotional picture?
- If my scene were in a movie, what emotion would a camera see if there was no dialogue?
FOR ADDITIONAL WRITING TIPS, SEE THE WRITING TIPS PAGE.
More A to Z Blogging Writing Tips of the Day