How to Balance “Show, Don’t Tell” in Your Writing
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“Show, Don’t Tell” is far and away one of the most common pieces of writing advice. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
This popular writing mantra claims to be the key to rich and immersive storytelling, but what does “Show, Don’t Tell” actually mean? Is it a technique you should truly pay mind as you work to improve your skills? And if so, how can you employ this popular piece of advice in a way that doesn’t feel contrived? Let’s discuss everything you need to know in today’s article, writers.
The rise of the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique…
The origin of this popular piece of writing advice is a hazy one. Despite attributions to Anton Chekhov, it appears that Percy Lubbock’s book The Craft of Fiction popularized this adage back in the 1920’s. Regardless of its origin, the fact remains that this advice has steadily built its home in the Western world’s collective writing consciousness for the past one hundred years or so.
That makes it worth looking into, right? Though any cold, hard data is largely lacking, it’s my belief that “Show, Don’t Tell” became popular writing advice because of the rise of film and television. Prior to the modern age, novels were largely framed as retellings, with a godlike narrator or in-the-know character literally telling readers (and, at times, other characters) the story at hand.
As film and television came into prominence, however, storytelling became more and more experiential, with readers wanting to “see” the story rather than “hear” it told. Thus, novelists began to reframe their stories as in-the-moment experiences, giving rise to techniques such as deep point-of-view, subjective storytelling, and film-to-fiction principles.
So, too, began the rise of “Show, Don’t Tell.” But what exactly does this advice mean?
Defining this popular piece of writing advice…
“Show, Don’t Tell,” is often misunderstood because it’s been oversimplified for the sake of brevity. In essence, however, this advice encourages writers to tell stories via the use of immersive thoughts, actions, and descriptions most often filtered through the lens of a point-of-view character. The most popular “Show, Don’t Tell” example comes from a quote often attributed to Anton Chekhov:
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
As you can see from this example, showing requires readers to engage with the story in order to comprehend the author’s intended meaning. We aren’t told that the moon is shining, but with the aid of a little context, the glint of light on broken glass helps us visualize a moon hung high in the night sky.
By this definition, “Show, Don’t Tell” earns and occupies a rightful place in popular writing canon. The problem comes when writers take this technique as law and assume it must be applied to every sentence in every story.
There is no right way to write a novel because there is no single way to tell a story. Thus, no writing “rules” are truly binding. Just as there are many instances in which applying the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique would improve the quality of a story, there are many in which writers should steer clear.
When should and shouldn’t you use this technique?
As with most things in life, a healthy balance between showing and telling is often needed to maintain your sanity — and that of your readers. Why? Because to write an entire story with “Show, Don’t Tell” in mind would leave you with a lengthy and likely overblown manuscript. In fact, to do so is virtually impossible.
Telling is often a more concise mode of communication, and that brevity comes in handy in many cases, such as:
When showing the passage of time
When relaying simple backstory or exposition
When capturing the narrative voice of some characters
When expressing a simple statement
When crafting most dialogue
When transitioning between settings
When balancing lengthy “showing” descriptions
When highlighting an important thought or action
Telling is also more common in certain narrative frameworks, such as stories told as legends or retellings. Of course, sometimes telling simply creates a better narrative flow than showing, and it’s perfectly okay to make use of telling in those instances.
Alternatively, showing is often quite effective at immersing readers in a point-of-view character’s mindset, helping them visualize the story world, engage with the action, and empathize with the stakes at hand. To improve your ability to show instead of tell, try working some of these tips into your next writing session:
Tip #1: Write engaging sensory description.
Making use of the five senses when writing descriptions will help immerse readers in the character’s experience, sure enough. But try taking your descriptions up a notch by having your character engage with the description at hand, making for a more experiential read. Take the following sentences for example:
Telling: “The truck was unreasonably loud.”
Showing w/ senses: “The low growl of a passing truck shook the room.”
Showing & engaging: “I grabbed the water glass to still its whining as the low growl of a passing truck shook the room.”
Tip #2: Avoid “Telling” Verbs.
When working to show instead of tell, avoid common telling verbs such as heard, saw, thought, smelled, or wondered. These verbs are, quite literally, tells or marks of authorship, pulling readers out of the character’s experience.
Continuing with our example, don’t say “She heard the low growl of a passing truck.” Instead, remove the telling verb and mimic the structure of one of our “showing” examples above.
Tip #3: Make use of rich language.
Pulling from another popular piece of writing advice, it’s often easier to “show” when avoiding adverbs and when making strong word choices in general.
Saying that a character “fled” holds more visual and emotional power than saying they “ran frantically,” as does the word “surged” instead of “rose” or “grew” and “rasp” instead of “sharp sound.”
Tip #4: Personify emotion.
More than any other element, we want to immerse readers in our stories’ emotional arcs, encouraging them to connect and relate with our characters and their feelings. This is hard to accomplish, however, when merely telling readers about our characters’ emotions. Instead, give life to those feelings by personifying them.
Transform “she was angry” into “a roiling anger took root within her” or “the grief was terrible” into “grief hollowed a pit in his stomach.” You could even choose to remove the direct emotion from your work. For example, “he was afraid” could become “a cold sweat broke over his brow.”
Still don’t feel like you have a strong handle on this whole “Show, Don’t Tell” advice?
More than anything, it’s important to stay true to your personal writing style so as to avoid work that feels contrived. But if you fear you may be leaning too far in the direction of either showing or telling in your work, take some time to analyze a recent passage or seek feed-back from a fellow writer or knowledgeable reader.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to play around with your writing style to see if you can’t create the right balance between showing and telling in your work. Immersing readers in our stories is by no means an easy task, but it’s often worth every effort. So let’s strive to do a better job of both showing and telling, shall we, writers?