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

by Jun 4, 2019Writing 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.

Join the 7 Day FREE Writing Challenge

 

This writing journey over one week will serve those who are new to writing and don’t know where to begin or what to write about. As well as seasoned writers, we all need to reignite an old flame with words to see if there’s any chemistry.

Join me for my next 7 Day Free Writing Challenge and learn simple but profound writing tricks.

Can I Show You How to Begin?

Can I show you how to begin? Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go...

How to Become a Writer Publishers Want

How to Become a Writer Publishers Want I often get asked, 'How do you get published?' The better question is 'how do we become the kind of writers publishers are looking for?' Here are my thoughts: Write the best goddamed book you can – live what you’ve written. Don’t...

Nobody Can Do This, But Me

When I was younger, I believed I needed rescuing.One day, sitting at an airport, I realised I didn’t want to be that person. I was homeward bound, after galivanting with no purpose, when I suddenly recognised that I could take responsibility for myself, and that I...

8 Reasons to Write Your Story

As an author and writing mentor, my days are spent writing stories and helping others to write theirs. But every writer I’ve ever worked with (myself included) throws themselves down this emotional garbage chute: why should I write my story? Who will care? What does it matter?

Playing By My Rules

It is early evening after dinner, and I stare into the kitchen sink. I gently draw patterns with the bubbles that remain from the washing up. I herd them into the centre of the sink and I turn the tap on and let the water trickle slowly, washing some of the bubbles...

Memoir Is a Moving Target

I thought I knew what my memoir was about. I was there after all. I thought it was a matter of working out where to start and where to end so I could settle my story down somewhere in between. How difficult could it be? So I started writing, in earnest, in the place I...

1 Comment

  1. Indrani Choudhury

    My heart beat for you jonna.life without you seems black. it’s you give me a new life.stay blessed Jonna love you more.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

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