You’ve heard it a thousand times from writing mentors, and you’ll hear it a thousand times more:
Show, don’t tell.
But what does it mean?
If you struggle with the difference between showing vs. telling, you’re not alone. Once you’ve got it, it seems simple. But until you do, this maxim causes as many questions as anything in the writing world.
Is it really that important? You bet it is. If you want your writing noticed by a publisher or an agent—and for the right reasons—it’s vital you master the art of showing.
So let’s see if I can solidify the concept in your mind right here, right now.
I want to supercharge your showing vs. telling radar—and make it simple.
The Difference Between Showing vs. Telling
When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.
You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”
Showing would paint a picture the reader could see in her mind’s eye.
If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him. Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity of others.
Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell.
Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind.
Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.”
When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want.
What could be better than engaging your reader—giving him an active role in the storytelling—or should I say the story-showing?
Show, Don’t Tell Examples
Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.
Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun
reflecting off the street.
Telling: Suzie was blind.
Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.
Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Telling:She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.
Showing:She wore coveralls carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt around her waist. “Point me to the head,” she said.
Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.
Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.
Is Telling Ever Acceptable?
Yes, it’s a mistake to take show, don’t tell as inviolable. While summary narrative is largely frowned upon, sometimes it’s a prudent choice. If there’s no value to the plot/tension/conflict/character arc by showing some mundane but necessary information, telling is preferable.
For instance, say you have to get your character to an important meeting and back, before the real action happens. Maybe he has to get clearance from his superiors before he can lead a secret raid.
Rather than investing several pages showing every aspect of the trip from packing, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving at his destination—you quickly tell that this way:
Three days later, after a trip to Washington to get the operation sanctioned by his superiors, Casey packed his weapons and camo clothes and set out to recruit his crew.
Then you immediately return to showing mode, describing his visits to trusted compatriots and getting them on board.
Why the Book Is Usually Better Than the Movie
The theater of the reader’s mind is more powerful than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books trigger the theater of the mind and allow readers to create their own visual.
Your writing can do the same if you master showing rather than telling.
Have another question about showing vs. telling? Ask me in the comments.
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One of the most common suggestions given to students writing an admissions essay is, “Show, don’t tell.” While this sounds good and seems helpful, many applicants struggle to figure out precisely what the advice means. Is it suggesting that you use the most complex words possible when writing? Maybe it’s saying you should use lots of adjectives and adverbs to ensure your descriptions are extraordinarily vivid? Or could it be that you should actually try painting a picture and submitting that with your app rather than writing anything at all? Let’s dig into this deceivingly complex piece of writing instruction and examine what it means in the context of admissions essay construction.
Too often, an essay with an interesting story will fizzle into a series of statements that tell rather than show the qualities of the writer. Students wrongfully assume that the reader will not “get” their main ideas if they do not beat them to death by explicitly stating them, often multiple times. Thus, the essay succumbs to overly broad clichés: the value of hard work and perseverance, learning from mistakes, overcoming adversity, making the world a better place, and so on. These may seem like good points to make in an admissions essay, but in reality, the strongest essays avoid such statements entirely. Instead, a truly excellent essay uses detailed stories to make broad points of this nature without ever stating them outright.
One of the easiest ways to understand the “Show, don’t tell” idea is to look at some specific examples:
In a mediocre essay: As I came to understand the challenges they face on a daily basis, I developed new compassion for the elderly.
In a better essay: Volunteering at the Senior Citizen Center in my community was an eye-opening experience that introduced me to difficulties faced by the elderly.
In an excellent essay: When I saw Mrs. Cooper struggling to load groceries into her car, I hustled across the parking lot to assist her.
The first example provides no detail; it is simply a broad statement that “tells” the reader something that happened. In doing so, it offers no insights into why or how this happened, nor does it provide any evidence of that compassion in action. The second example provides a bit more detail, but it remains overly general. The final example, on the other hand, evokes a vivid image of something that actually happened, thus placing the reader in the experience of the applicant.Through those words, the author “shows” the reader something that actually occurred in her life. From that experience, the reader is able to see that the author has compassion for the elderly without ever reading those words.
Let’s look at another example:
In a mediocre essay: I am extremely interested in chemistry, which is my favorite subject.
In a better essay: My passion for chemistry led me to enter the state science fair during my sophomore year.
In an excellent essay: As steam billowed from my test tube, I grinned, confident that my science fair project was ready to face the judges’ scrutiny.
Again, you can see that the initial example does little more than make a general point. The second offers a bit more in-depth imagery, while the third vividly describes a specific incident that highlights the author’s passion for chemistry in action. An admissions officer is far more likely to remember the third statement than the first. Moreover, even though the third passage never specifically states a passion for or interest in chemistry, that feeling is conveyed through the scene described.
“Show, don’t tell” is a simple way to remind yourself that an essay should give the admissions committee a detailed glimpse into your life, ideally by sharing things that have actually happened to you. You can do this by describing events and moments that capture something important about yourself. Don’t simply tell readers what you deem important; show them a scene that illustrates that aspect of your life, and allow them to draw the conclusion on their own. Doing so will yield an extremely effective and memorable piece of admission writing.