Today’s ‘Ask Inkitt’ Question: I keep hearing the phrase ‘show, don’t tell,’ but I don’t really understand what it means. Can you help?
When I first began writing, this advice confused me too. I mean, we’re storytellers, so why is ‘telling’ something to be avoided? Let me start by saying, it’s perfectly acceptable to ‘tell’ sometimes. But let’s think about the whole thing as it relates to the reader experience.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” For me, Anton Chekhov’s quote best illustrates the concept. We are trying to paint a vivid, sensory picture for our readers, involve them deeply in the story, and let them feel the action as if they’re inside our character’s mind. We don’t want to merely string a series of facts together.
That’s where the art of ‘showing’ comes in to play. Here are some quick, effective tips on how to do this:
Avoid passive sentence structure.
Search your manuscript for the verb was. Example: She was hiding quietly under the table. Change to: She hid quietly under the table. Right away the sentence has more immediacy. The reader feels less like a passive observer and more a part of the action.
Use powerful verbs.
You can go further by choosing a more expressive verb and losing the adverb. Example: She hid quietly under the table. Change to: She huddled under the table.
Add physical and/or emotional cues.
If a character is huddled under a table, and we know she isn’t a child playing hide and seek, a quick glimpse at her emotional state will connect readers to the scene and ramp up the intensity. Let’s add a little feeling to the above example: Huddled under the table, her body shook. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, willing the soldiers to pass.
Use dialogue to show.
But be careful not to sound forced. Dialogue can convey useful information to readers, capture the characters’ emotions, and add to scene tension. I like to read sections of dialogue aloud to make sure they flow naturally. Here’s another article on effectively using dialogue: A Deeper Dive into Dialogue.
Here’s a sample of show vs. tell in action.
This is an example from one of my own books where I took the simple facts and tried to enliven them by showing instead of telling. In this scene, the protagonist, Caeli, has just witnessed a ship crash near her hidden camp in the forest, and she’s trying to save the injured pilot:
First pass: She was tired but knew she had to move him out of the ship. She pulled his body over the rough ground, grateful he was unconscious and couldn’t feel anything.
Final edit: Ignoring the heaviness in her limbs, Caeli gripped him under the shoulders. Grateful he was so deeply unconscious, she dragged him out of the fuselage, wincing when his splintered leg jostled along the rough ground.
The first take gives me the nuts and bolts of the action and a rough view of Caeli’s experience. The final draft adds more color and vitality to the scene. A little thought and effort goes a long way to ensure the scene is as vivid as it can be.
Okay, remember when I said ‘telling’ is perfectly acceptable sometimes? It is, and here are some examples of when ‘telling’ works:
Occasionally a character just has to get from here to there. The reader needs to know it’s happened, but the details aren’t really important. A brief sentence to update the reader on a setting or location change is fine, as long as the reader isn’t pulled out of the story. In these instances, be brief and avoid info dumping.
Other times, we need to convey a character’s inner thoughts. We can infer emotion from action. For example, a character slamming his fist on the desk probably indicates anger or frustration. But the reader might need to know that he’s just lost his job, or that his flight has been cancelled. Conveying that information in a straightforward way will likely be most effective.
Your goal is to immerse your reader in the story. Too much ‘telling’ will distance them from the narrative. Strive for balance and don’t be afraid to rewrite a scene several times to play with the language. If you take the time to do this, I think you’ll be pleased with the results!