Show, don’t tell.
This is probably not the first time you’ve heard this as it’s among the most common writing tips out there. Even so, many writers, especially those who are just starting out, find it to be quite tricky.
So today, we’ll discuss what it means and give you some tips and examples that will help you 'show' instead of 'tell'.
The famous line from Anton Chekhov illustrates this concept best: "Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
Show, don’t tell is a writing technique where the writer paints a picture for the readers through sensory details, words, and actions rather than through the writer's narration. Showing allows the readers to put themselves in the scene, which makes the story more captivating.
Pro Tip: When using the 'show, don’t tell' technique, stay away from words that explain emotions such as happy, sad, angry, as well as basic sensory words like heard, felt, smelled, etc.
Telling: Jane was happy.
Showing: Jane's eyes sparkled and sunshine flooded her soul.
Telling: John was frightened.
Showing: John’s blood ran cold as he thought about what he'd just witnessed.
How successful authors used 'show, don’t tell'
“She slammed her glass down so hard that it slopped over on an ivory cushion. She swung her legs to the floor and stood up with her eyes sparking fire and her nostrils wide. Her mouth was open and her bright teeth glared at me. Her knuckles were white.”
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
"The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light."
- The Lord of the Rings Part II: The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
“I held the face of mister angel like a baby or a football in the crook of my arm and bashed him with my knuckles, bashed him until his teeth broke and through his lips. Bashed him with my elbow after that until he fell through my arms into a heap at my feet. Until the skin was pounded thin across his cheekbones and turned black.”
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.”
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3 Tips to Improve Your Writing Using 'Show, Don’t Tell'
1. Use sensory details. Describe the setting of the story through sensory words and actions. This will help your readers imagine themselves in the scene through the character’s lens. Describe what the character is seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting, or hearing to help your readers understand how the characters perceive their environment.
2. Use strong verbs. (For example, instead of run, you can use sprint, bolt, race, etc.) Using strong verbs can help you stir emotions on your readers. It will also help you get rid of unnecessary adverbs, making your story more compelling. (For example, instead of grip firmly, you can use clench or squeeze.)
3. Use dialogues to convey story details and reveal character traits. Dialogues draw the readers in and make the story more realistic.
Implementing 'show, don't tell' in your writing can be challenging at first, but with consistent practice, you’ll soon be able to master it.
Moreover, know that both showing and telling are essential to effective storytelling, so work on finding the right balance.
Share examples in the comments below of how you’ve used or plan to use 'show, don't tell' in your writing.
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