“Show and Tell” in Your Writing

One of the common problems I have been running across lately in my work as a freelance editor, is that there is a lot of “telling” in the writing, and not much “showing.” The writer “tells” us to be afraid, that the character is arrogant & mean, that the house is falling apart, etc. But the writer fails to create a sense of dread, wonder, and affection for the character.

Instead, the writer should be making the reader afraid, showing them the arrogance of the character and how dilapidated the house is, and so on.

For example, a writer who is only “telling” things might say, “The spooky old house was falling apart.”

But this is far too much “telling.” You have just told the reader that they are supposed to be afraid of the house, instead of creating a sense of dread and fear in them as you describe the house in better detail. The reader will not feel something just because you tell them to, you have to create that mood.

Also: How is it falling apart? Show how it is falling apart: describe the windows cracked, the rotten floorboards, the curtains ragged, the paint on the walls (inside and out) faded and chipping away, etc. Give them a specific image in their mind, so they can visualize the details.

You should also use sensory descriptors and imagery to create the mood and images you wish to convey. Use sensory descriptors to get the reader to feel the danger: sight, sound, smell, etc.

Some examples:

  • The rustling of the leaves in the cold wind made him look over his shoulder. For a moment, the bizarre shapes of the gnarled, twisted branches as they shook in the wind made Peter imagine they were trying to grab at him from all sides.
  • Suddenly, an overwhelming stench hit him. It was the smell of very rotten meat and organic decay. It was the smell of death. His stomach turned over, and he gagged, almost vomiting. The next thing he knew, the scent was gone and he could breathe again.
  • A freezing wind blew out of the woods. It was unnaturally cold, even for this time of year, and was blowing in the opposite direction of the rain. It was as if the woods had a wind of its own. Holly felt the chill of it deep in her bones.

If possible, a writer should also evoke emotions and the readers’ own memories to help create a stronger image, and more powerful writing. Make the reader feel anger at the injustice of the villain’s actions against the hero (or another character), or comfortable & safe at the smell of pie cooking in a kitchen – just before you have the demonic-werewolf-ghost jump through the window and attack someone.

Another example: Instead of calling someone “villainous”, show us how they can be mean and evil. If a main character savagely kicks a homeless man who is merely sleeping in a freezing alleyway, for example, or laughs at the sight of a bully beating up a smaller child, we know that character is not one of the good guys. Such “Random Acts of Villainy” can be just as effective as “Random Acts of Kindness” in showing the reader who your characters are.

One of my favorite characters on TV is Adrian Monk. Every episode we are “shown” his major character traits: He has a keen eye for detail, and a passion to make things right in the world. The writers show this by giving him OCD, and grief over the murder of his late wife. His OCD causes him to notice details that pass by most people, but it is not focused solely on crime scenes: he also obsesses on the placement of every item in the room, the socks someone is wearing, the idea that he might have left his stove on back home, and so on.

The fact that he has an incredible eye for detail is shown to the viewer in countless situations.

Yes, you should have a list of descriptive terms for every character, but you should not share this list with your readers. Instead, try to demonstrate how each character is worthy of those descriptors.

“Improve Your Writing: Show, Not Tell” (Benjamin’s English) – Video

“How to Show, Not Tell, in Your Writing” (Quotidian Writer) – Video

“How to ‘Show Don’t Tell’ in Creative Writing” (Ignited Ink Writing) – Video

“The definitive guide to ‘show, don’t tell’ ” (The Writer Magazine)

“Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is a Golden Rule of Creative Writing” (Writers.com)

“3 Simple Tips on the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Mantra” (Writers Edit)

“How To Show & Not Tell in Short Stories” (Writers Write)

“How to Balance ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in Your Writing” (Well Storied)

“Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know” (Jerry Jenkins)

“The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As a Writer” (Literary Hub)

“My Golden Rules to ‘Show Don’t Tell’: 6 useful tips I use in my writing” (The Writers Cooperative)

“How to Show Not Tell in Writing With Exercises” (Self-Publishing School)

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Thank you!


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