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Writing Techniques: Part V – Show and tell January 17, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
Tags: , , , , ,

Don’t tell, show

show-and-tellMost writers are taught that it is best to “show” and not “tell” when writing – that is, instead of telling the reader what emotion a character is feeling, you should show them.  Apparently, this is because readers prefer to use their brains – they prefer to deduce things from mental images rather than be told everything.

As Hemingway said:

“Let action speak for itself, without telling readers how to respond, what to feel, how to judge.  Let images convey meaning.  If action is portrayed truly and precisely, using only its essential elements, then readers, without being told how, will respond emotionally as the writer intednded.”

So for example, instead of saying Tom was nervous, have him sweat and chew his pen and tap his feet.

How to show

The way to show emotion in your writing is through detail.  Not just any detail or detail for the sake of being detailed (that would just bore readers to death) – but choose specific images that convey specific emotions and only report on the things that matter.

Here is a link to a great article which explains exactly how to show and not tell, and provides some useful examples and exercises to help you along the way.

For some people this comes naturally.  I am far from good at doing this, especially when I’m just trying to write freely to get words on the page.  Often when I try to be detailed, I either find myself stopping because I can’t find the right word, or I find my descriptions too average, to lifeless, or worse, too try-hard.

The most welcoming thing I’ve read today is from this writer, who suggests that it might not be such a bad thing to tell rather than show when working on your first draft, especially if you find that it causes you to lose sight of the big picture when stopping to work on your descriptions.

Thanks for making me feel less like a retard.


1. levimontgomery - January 18, 2009

“Show, don’t tell” is on pretty shaky ground to begin with. There’s a rant coming, but I’ll do it on my own blog. Sometime.

The fact of the matter is that if I want you to know what’s in my driveway, and I want to “show” you, I can send you a photograph. I can send you a painting. I can send you an airline ticket, and you can drop in for coffe, and I’ll go “Oh, as long as you’re here, let’s go look at my car.”

But if I want to use words, I have to “tell” you. We don’t call it “storyshowing.”

“Show, don’t tell” is only a tiny subset of a far vaster thing, which is to “write reality.” If I write reality, you will feel it when you read. But writing is inherently telling, not showing.

Levi Montgomery

2. Inspiredworlds - January 18, 2009

didn’t they teach you to show AND tell in primary school

3. pacejmiller - January 18, 2009

@levimontgomery – thanks for the post! I think ‘show not tell’ is just intended to be a technique for writers who want to convey emotion more effectively in their writing – you are right that it’s just a subset of a far vaster thing. It’s supposed to aid you in your storytelling, not supplant it. As the some of the links suggested, a lot of times you have to tell, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

@inspiredworlds – yes they did. But surprisingly I can’t ever recall doing this when I was at school. I did once read a story about how a kid brought his dad’s weed to school – I think the teacher confiscated it for herself.

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