What does this mean? This is one very common issue that a lot of new authors will struggle with, how to show the reader what is going on in a story, rather than telling them.  It sounds simple but it’s just a bit more complicated than a person new to the craft realizes.  So what does it mean and how do we accomplish this, and why does it matter? 

What does “show, don’t tell” mean:  

This is the difference between telling the reader what the character is feeling, rather than allowing the reader to imagine it for themselves, drawing from clues within the context. 

Examples-

Tell: Sarah felt angry as Steve walked out of the house. 

Show: Sarah’s face flushed with heat as she clenched her hands into tight fists, storming after Steve as he walked out of the house. 

The “Tell” sentence very simply tells the reader how the character felt regarding the scenario that is taking place. 

If you compare it to the “Show”  example, you’ll see a longer sentence, showing us Sarah’s reactions to the scenario, allowing the reader to understand that she is angry, furious at Steve, based on her physical reaction. 

When we are conversing with friends and family, just telling them about our day or relating a funny incident at work, we typically use a mix of show and tell within that story, depending on how much we enjoy telling stories.  This usually depends on the scenario. 

For instance, if you had a meeting with your Human Resources department at work to relay a situation that happened in your area, you may say the following things:

  • The employee became violent and angry.

  • The customer began to sob. 

  • I felt upset and threatened by his actions. 

  • I felt diminished by her criticism. 


Take the same situation and relay it to close friends over drinks or to a close family member. You may say these things instead:

  • The employee began to yell, turning red and throwing objects around his desk. 

  • The customer's face fell and tears began to run down her cheeks when I told her that I could not refund her money.

  • I began shaking when that man pushed me against the wall, demanding my purse.

  • I hunched over in my seat, trying to become invisible as my manager berated me. 


Depending on the situation, we tend to use certain phrases in our conversations, phrases that would be appropriate for that time, place or person. 

When we are writing a story, sometimes it is easier to tell the reader what we want to say rather than show them, because we are “telling” them a story. However, in fiction writing, you actually want to “show” the reader a story, much like a movie.  Allow the reader to fall into your writing, immerse themselves into the story and feel what the characters are feeling. Allow them to take their cues from the cues of the people in the story. Those non-verbal cues that we all know and love, those emotional responses and physical reactions. Being able to master show vs tell, will make the difference between a good storyteller and a great one. 

Here is another example:

Example:

“Hurry up!” Mom said angrily. 

“Hurry up!” Mom snarled. 


The first sentence tells us that mom is angry with the character she is speaking to, while the second sentence shows us by using a strong verb. 

Another way to really employ this technique is by using strong visual verbs, verbs that allow the reader to create a visual image in their mind of how the character is behaving. 

Example:

Bob walked down the block, directions in hand. 

This is perfectly fine to say. Boring, but fine, but it’s also telling the reader what he is doing. 

Try These Instead:

  • Bob shuffled down the block. 

  • Bob ambled down the block. 

  • Bob strode down the block.

  • Bob stormed down the block.

  • Bob ran down the block. 


I can guarantee that you visualized a different “walk” in your mind for each verb that I used above.  Each line is just a bit different but speaks volumes to your reader as to the mood of the character and the urgency of the situation. 

Let’s try one more example with verb usage:

Matt cut the attacker with the knife from the counter. 

Okay, fight scene, simple, Matt cut the guy.  But did you visualize it?  Could you see it in your mind? How did it happen? 

  • Matt grabbed the chef’s knife from the counter and slashed the masked man across the chest. 

  • Matt grabbed the gleaming steel blade from the countertop and thrust it at the attacker as he lunged at him. 

  • Matt yanked the knife from the counter and stabbed it into the attacker's left hand, seconds before he could stab Mary. 

  • Matt rammed the gleaming kitchen knife into the masked man’s chest, driving it deep in through his chest as he knelt over him. 

These sentences are more graphic, more exciting and intense and gets the reader invested in the situation unfolding in front of them. This is how you get a reader hooked on your words, how you get them immersed in the story as you bring them along for the ride.  By mastering showing over telling, you are guaranteed a stronger story, and better responses from your readers.  Try employing this technique in the next story that you write or go back over an old story and change the "telling" to "showing." See how much stronger the piece reads.


There are several resources online that discuss this and I’ll list them below. 

http://www.wright.edu/~david.wilson/eng3830/creativewriting101.pdf

This will take you a pdf file that you can download for a handy reference. 


https://self-publishingschool.com/show-dont-tell-writing/

Self-publishing school has a ton of information on writing. Save this link. 


https://blog.reedsy.com/show-dont-tell/

Reedsy has a very informative author blog that covers a wide variety of topics.