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.

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...

Women’s Bodies Over the Twentieth Century

'Civilization is a circle squared . That’s why in civilized societies, women’s lot and Nature’s lot has been such a sorry one. It’s the duty of advanced women to teach men to love the circle again.’ - Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues If ever our bodies held...

7 Things the Writing Community Can Do for You

Being part of a writing community has changed so much for me. I have been a writer my entire life, but I have almost always navigated the ocean of words on my own. Only in the last year have I come to realize what it means to my journey to have other oarsmen in the...

What Your Reader Doesn’t Want to See

I’m a novice writer. But I’m an experienced reader, as most writers (novice or not) tend to be. As I sink my teeth into yet another book, I find myself frustrated with the writing, but intrigued by the content. The author had a clear vision of what the story meant to...

Where Is My Writing Voice?

When I heard the question, “How do I find my writing voice?” I had this vision of searching my house. Looking behind the cushions on the couch, checking amongst the debris long forgotten in the back of my wardrobe, maybe even turning out the rubbish bin in my...

May It Happen for You

Sometimes Sometimes things don't go, after all,from bad to worse. Some years, muscatelfaces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well. A people sometimes will step back from war;elect an honest man, decide they...

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 *