‘Show not Tell’

Mariajauthor/ October 7, 2019/ The Writing Craft/ 0 comments

Hi all! After asking for some feedback, it seems people would be interested in hearing about my journey as a writer and bits about the writing process. So today, I thought I’d share with you a common rule of thumb for writers – to ‘show not tell’.

Simply put, ‘show not tell’ is about building up a scene in a reader’s imagination. You don’t simply tell someone something, but you allow the reader to experience it for themselves, putting them right into the scene alongside the character. When this is done well, many readers may comment that they’ve experienced a scene in a book like a movie.

In case this sounds totally abstract, allow me to illustrate with an example. Consider this sentence:

“The girl walked her usual route to the shops”.

This would be an example of telling. The sentence above is technically fine, but it doesn’t allow much room for showing. All the reader can see is that the girl walked her usual route to the shops and that’s about it.

Now, if the author was showing the reader, the essential meaning would still be the same, i.e. the girl walks to the shops. However, there’s so many ways the author could make the sentence come alive in the reader’s own imagination. To really put the reader alongside the girl in the scene.

I imagine there are lots of different ways for an author to show this sentence rather than tell it, but my personal method is to think about the five senses from the girl’s perspective (sight, sound, smell, touch and taste). I also like to ask different kinds of questions. Let me show you what I mean.

The question I’m immediately wondering is, where she is walking? It’s her usual route, but what does that mean? Is she walking along a pavement, through a park, along a muddy lane? If a muddy lane, can she smell trees and hay? Could there be sheep nearby?

I could be asking things all day, but for your sake as well as mine, let’s say she is walking on pavement through an urban area to the shops. Even with narrowing it down slightly with this decision, there’s still lots of things to think about.

For example, the girl is walking, but what does she see? Is it sunny? Raining? In what way is she walking? What kind of mood is she in? What is she wearing? Is she much aware of things around her, or does she have her earphones plugged in? Can she smell exhaust fumes? What does the pavement look like? Is she holding anything as she walks?

Another useful method for writers generally is to draw on what they might already know, which is partly why I picked the example of the pavement/urban area. In my hometown I lived right around the corner from my school and the shops were about a 10-minute walk away, so now I can use my experiences/memories of that walk to put it into the scene.

Note as well that we haven’t even talked about the girl herself very much, rather we’ve focused on what she is experiencing. Now, however, I’m interested in her character and her motivations. Why is she going the shops? Is she meeting a friend, or has her mum told her to go get milk? Or is she simply bored and is going for something to do? When is she going? Is it morning, afternoon, or even night? There’s also the big question of who she might be, what her background is, etc, but seeing as this is meant to be an example for a blog post, I’ll try to restrain myself! So, here’s what ‘showing’ this girl walking to the shops might be like:

“The girl’s squeaky trainers trudged over grey tarmac, speckled with the dirty white splodges of long abandoned chewing gum. Her ears were filled with the hum of constant traffic on the busy main road. The girl’s hands fidgeted slightly in her pockets, as she passed the old pub on her left, where there was still a bit of roof missing. On her right was the new estate, with some little children playing on swings. Just visible, peering through curtains, were parents ensuring nobody went through the little gate onto the main road.

The day was cool, which the girl was glad about. She’d had enough of summer now, that made all her clothes stick to her. The chilly air hung around her, but it wasn’t sharp enough to bite into her skin. A smile touched her face as she crunched a crisp brown leaf underfoot, carrying the promise of many more to come.”

I already want to go on and write a few dozen paragraphs about this girl bored at the end of the summer, but hopefully this is enough to illustrate how effective to ‘show not tell’ is. Before, we knew hardly anything about the girl’s walk to the shop, other than the fact she did it. Now, though, hopefully you get a glimpse into the scene – perhaps you can really see the splodges of chewing gum on the pavement, or hear the hum of traffic, or feel the cool weather just on the brink of cold.

A note about pacing – just to say it isn’t always about cramming as much ‘show’ as possible into one’s writing. It’s about getting the balance right. If every single line was about all the character’s experiences, it could be half a book before the they got up, dressed and had their breakfast!

Besides, ‘telling’ can be extremely effective. If one is writing a thriller, or even a reaction to a very poignant scene, less really can be more. E.g. ‘he cried’ might fit far better into that scene than ‘salty tears crawled down slowly’ depending on the scene one is writing. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever include that line about ‘salty tears’, which I guess proves the point that sometimes less is more!

Well that’s it for me this week – hope you’ve been able to find out more about ‘show not tell’. You could always try it for yourself – imagine a scene (it could be as simple as drinking a cup of tea!) how would you describe it, using your senses and asking questions? How did character X drink the cup of tea? Where are they when they drink it? Did they like it? Hope this post has piqued your interest.

Thanks, Maria

Share this Post

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>