‘Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.’ – Ernest Hemmingway
Almost every writer has heard the classic writing rule ‘show don’t tell’, but not everyone understands it. Telling is useful when writing as it is supplying information, but that is not enough. To make a story more real and effectively capture the reader, ‘showing’ is better. Showing enables the author to take their reader into the moment and see, feel, and experience what the author has experienced. Telling is flat and excludes the reader, showing is deeper and absorbs the reader.
Telling: I cooked rice and stew last night.
Showing: Last night when I got home, in spite of my exhaustion, my hunger compelled me to go into the kitchen. There, I made myself rice garnished with spices and carrots, and well-seasoned stew with lot of assorted meats inside. I could not get over the sweet aroma of my creation my belly groaned with yearning and I could not wait to delve into the food.
There is a huge difference between the two passages: the first one just informs while the second goes deeper. It could possibly make the readers mouth water and get them to go and make rice and stew.
Agreed, telling is easier and less stressful when writing, but showing makes the work more interesting.
Here are a few tips that will make your writing come alive for the reader.
- Be specific. Specificity will fill in the gaps of your telling and bring life to your scenes. For instance instead of:
Telling: The little boy looked tired; he clearly needed a nap.
Showing: His sleepy brown eyes hardened into red-rimmed slits. He removed his plastic bicycle helmet aggressively, and threw it on the floor. He staggered towards the bed and tripped over the toy car on the floor, hitting his head in the process. ‘Ouch’ he said. He clearly needed a nap, but with the pain in his head that might not happen.
- Use dialogue. It can give your reader insight about character, emotion and mood.
Instead of telling the reader your dad was angry, they can hear it for themselves:
“Samuel!” Dad yelled, “Get in here this instant!”
- Give the reader a reason to feel your emotions. When writing a story, engage the reader’s heart, mind, and imagination by sharing vivid details that elicit in your reader the emotions you want to express. Rather than classify and list all the emotions that you felt, use specific details thathelp your reader to feel those emotions.
Telling: I will never forget how I felt after Bruno died. I was so miserable.
Showing: Whenever puppies in the pet store window distracted me from our walk, Bruno flattened his scruffy ears, growling. But he always forgave me. As his sight faded, the smell of fresh air and the feel of grass would make him try to caper. Eventually, at the sound of my voice, his tail thumped weakly on the ground. This morning, I filled his water bowl all the way to the top–just the way he likes it–before I remembered, oh! Bruno is no more.
In the second statement, the writer first ensured that the readers understood the close connection between his dog Bruno and he. Once he had drawn them in, it was easy for them to feel his pain on Bruno’s passing.
- Use sensory language. In order for readers to fully experience what you are writing about, they need to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around them. Use language that engages as many senses as possible; not just sight.
- Description is key. Choose your words carefully, and use them sparingly to convey your meaning.
The following example is from a short story written by Erin (Daily writing tips).
Telling: He sits on the couch holding his guitar.
There is nothing wrong with that sentence. It gives the reader some basic information, but it does not create an image.
Compare that sentence with this:
Showing: His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants to let go.
The second example takes that basic information and paints a picture with it. It also uses figurative language—in this case, the simile “cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover”—to help create an image.
When using description, it is important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you can end up with a statement like this:
He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt, jeans, and a brown leather jacket.
- Encourage the Reader’s Involvement
Telling: From the way she behaved in the crowded restaurant, you could tell Sally was attracted to the cute stranger in the black shirt. She tried a few things to get his attention, and eventually she thought she succeeded.
Showing: That stranger had been scanning the room, and this time, Sally thought his eyes flickered in her direction. Wait — was that a half smile? Had he just put his hand on his heart? Or was he just brushing something off of his shirt? That shirt looked soft. Sally smiled. “He’s kind of cute,” her roommate giggled. Sally casually looked away, twirling a curl. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, letting her eyes rest on the artwork, the flowers, a random face in the crowd, and found another excuse to laugh. Carefully turning her profile, she crossed her legs like her friends had practiced in middle school. That ought to do it, she thought.
In the first example (telling), the author wastes no time providing the information, but the story is thin, boring and nothing interesting seems to be happening.
The second example (showing) on the other hand is more engaging. The reader is left to figure out what is going on. There is tension, and a bit of character development.
Truth is “Telling” is sometimes god especially when the goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage. Telling does the job quite well —particularly if it’s part of an overall strategy.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” —Thomas Paine
“I am your father.” — Darth Vader
Nevertheless, when telling a story, tell it in such a way that it SHOWS the reader an in-depth meaning of the story.