How to Show Instead of Tell In Writing

A common complaint I’ve heard from writers …

… is the inability to show rather than tell in writing. The complaint includes not even understanding the concept to begin with. So I thought I’d try to help with this post.

Why it’s important to show rather than tell …

Characters make stories great. Plots, climaxes, twists, cliffhangers, setting, world-building, irony, humor etc., all make stories worthwhile. But characters make us fall in love with stories. Characters make us care.

Writing characters that are ‘real’ is important in creating such a gripping story. And by ‘real’ I mean human, in their reactions and their humility, in their timid courage and their cowardice. Real characters aren’t superheroes, they’re just like you and me. They make mistakes. They’re vulnerable. They need to react realistically to be believed. But in order to convey that in a way that will resonate with the reader—instead of coming off as surface only, and fake—we must show these attributes instead of telling.

Don’t write, i.e., tell, “Tommy was scared.”

That’s taking the easy route, although it does apply what I say above about ‘real reactions.’ Writing, “Tommy was scared” is TELLING the reader something that you should have shown them. SHOW that Tommy is scared by narrating some character action—“Tommy’s heart raced” for example—because that leads the reader to a conclusion, and that’s what it’s all about.

My approach to editing is to ‘err on the side of simplicity,’ but I understand that as writers we don’t want to dumb things down so much that our readers feel insulted. Leading (showing) the reader to a conclusion is a mark of good writing, telling them something outright is not. Tommy isn’t scared, Tommy is shaking, trembling, Tommy fainted, Tommy fights or runs away. There are a million things Tommy can DO that leads the reader to a conclusion, and yet there are so many ‘writers’ that will simply write: “Tommy was scared.”

Another example I saw not long ago was from an author blogging about something to the tune of, “I’m writing in my freezing apartment, but I have writer’s block and I can’t figure out how to show instead of tell!”

I responded with something along the lines of, “You could write that you’re sitting on your couch, wrapped in a blanket with your laptop in front of you. The teasing warmth and aroma of coffee in the smiley-face mug beside you being too much to bear. You can only hear your fingertips tapping the keys they’re so numb. And the only thing you feel is the winter breeze from the poorly sealed window facing Fifth Avenue—that would SHOW us you’re writing in a cold Manhattan apartment rather than outright TELLING us you are.”

I don’t now if the point I was trying to make got across, but all you can do is lead the horse to water, it’s on them to drink. 

Readers want to follow along with a story, be immersed in it, love its characters and live its plot—writers offer that by showing instead of telling.

Think of the senses when you write. What does the character smell, see, hear and feel? Show that. Build something—give the reader the blueprint—then let them figure it out on their own. Don’t just hand them a tower and say, “This is my tower.” That’s a surefire way to remove excitement from your storytelling.

This goes beyond fiction, BTW

Yeah, marketers can learn from this as well. And since I dabbled in marketing and am generally disgusted with the practice in general—not because of its nature but because of its application—I feel compelled to breach this arena once more.

Stop TELLING me your product—white paper, live event, flower shop, whathaveyou—is amazing and SHOW me. This is why testimonials work well to sell products. SHOW me happy customers—repeat customers—SHOW me success stories. Stop asking questions in marketing email subject lines. “Are you—” no, I’m not, I’ve already deleted the email actually. Unsubscribed.

But I also understand that marketing in this day and age is a numbers game. That is, the more you market the more likely you are to sell. No one in marketing knows what’s going to work, so the more spaghetti you throw at the wall, disregarding the recipe, something at some point will stick. It’s a terrible approach but commonplace in marketing. As a writer, this marketing approach always felt incongruous to my better nature, and that’s why I didn’t stay in marketing (shocker).

End rant. Thanks for reading! Did this help you at all to understand the difference between telling and showing in writing? What are your thoughts on telling versus showing? Leave a comment and subscribe for more posts on writing!