Show Don’t Tell: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

by | Jun 4, 2019 | Writing Tips

One of the trickier ‘golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

What does it mean to show not tell?

It’s the technique of painting a picture for the reader rather than spelling out what a character is sensing or feeling.

When should we use the ‘show don’t tell’ rule?

Generally, when we’re writing about emotions and senses, showing works well. However, we need a balance of showing and telling in a text. Telling is more effective when we’re summarizing backstory or describing action.

Why should we use it?

When we show, we paint an image for the reader (like in movies) so the reader gets to interpret and feel his or her own emotional response. This is how we create rich, vivid text that is open to interpretation. It makes writing inviting, not didactic.

E.g. She was grief struck (telling) versus ‘Something cold flickered inside her, memories of her mother moved like minnows beneath a dark surface.’(showing)

When we ‘show’ we leave spaces for the reader to fill in with his or her imagination.

The movie director, David Mamet talks about ‘telling the story in cuts…through a juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected…a shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, ‘you’ll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.’ It’s unimportant that the audience should guess why it’s important to the story. It’s important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised.’

Telling robs the reader of his or her own emotional take on the situation. It flattens instead of expands the text.

‘She is lonely’ versus ‘She looks for a kind face but never sees one.’

When we ‘show’ we’re letting the reader in, we’re writing for the reader. Showing opens rather than closes the text.

‘He felt hot’ versus ‘Large half moons of sweat grew at his armpits.’

The writer Adam Robinson’s exercise for showing not telling is: drop an adjective into a sentence like this ‘He was so….. that he once.’ Or ‘the day was so cold that…’ Then delete the first half of the sentence.

Have fun experimenting.

Keep writing – the sentences you don’t write keep you where you are. The ones you do, take you places.

PS: Show Don’t Tell is just one key element of writing. For more tips and exercises to strengthen your craft, sign up for my 7 Day Free Writing Challenge.

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