WHAT DOES “SHOW, DON’T TELL" MEAN?


The Types of Telling

My students must often feel frustrated when I say that they are ‘telling, not showing’.  Often they don’t even realise that what they have written is ‘telling’ the reader facts.  There are so many ways this can happen.  Here are a few glaring examples to help you spot ‘telling’; your own writing may have more subtle variations. 

1. Referring to the Main Character by name.

One excellent clue that you are telling, instead of showing, is  the number of times you use the main character’s name. Be aware that, if you refer to the character by name, you are clearly talking about him/her (telling).

Eg.  Morris did not like it at all.  (We can hardly be inside Morris's head at this point!)

The more often you can use ‘he’ or ‘she’ (unless it leads to ambiguity) the better. Readers can magically accept that ‘he/she’ is allowing them into the character’s head, his/her POV.

Thus: He did not like it, did not like it at all.
           She had always trusted her judgement, but had she made a big mistake this time?

2.   Stating emotions
Sam was broken-hearted at the death of his faithful old dog.

Just show this. Eg:  Sam knelt on the ground beside old Shep and stroked the cold fur on the stiffening body. A tear welled in his eye.


3.   Stating (telling) before showing
Marcia was furious. She stormed into the room, seized Michael by the tie, and shouted into his face, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Here, the showing is good... we can clearly see that Marcia is furious .... so why play author and tell it first?

4. Listing physical attributes that could be blended into the narrative.
Charlie was a short, chubby man with a beer belly and a shiny bald head.

Solution: Incorporate this (perhaps more slowly) into the action. Eg. Charlie waddled into the bar and stared up into Pete McCormack's face, before climbing onto the bar stool that was a bit of a reach for him.  Perched precariously, he pressed his beer belly against the bar, took out a grubby handkerchief and wiped the beads off sweat off his shiny bald head.

5. Redundant adverbs in dialogue tags
“W-what must I . . . d-do?” he stammered hesitantly.
“My treasure, my dearest, my very love,”   Sir Roderick said lovingly.

Surely, in each case,  the dialogue itself carries enough clues to the way it is being said. Dashes suggest a stammer and an ellipsis (three dots)  suggests hesitancy.  Moreover, it's hard to say Sir Roderick's line any other way than lovingly, unless you are being facetious.

6. Info - dumps (especially in dialogue)
“Well, Morris, I guess you’re going to have to phone your mother — my sister Tilly – who lives in Australia, and tell her you refuse to work for the family firm, Clothears and Sons, that she set up in 1959.”

Never have one character tell another something he clearly knows (like his mother's name and what the family firm is called) simply to get the information across to the reader.

7. Failing to use POV in a major scene
As the knife-wielding thug backed Teresa into the shop doorway, she suddenly realised she had no escape route. She wondered if there was a way to distract him.  Remembering an old self-defence video she had seen, she started yelling aggressive karate sounds and hurled her stiletto-heeled shoe at his head.

Consider how much more powerful this would be if we weren't just being told Teresa was pondering and how she was feeling.  What if we were inside her head, going through the fear with her and nutting out a solution?

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