The Ten Commandments of Writing #4: Thou Shalt ‘Show’ Not ‘Tell’

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Show, don’t tell” is a common refrain in my writing group. This is generally another way of saying there is too much exposition in the manuscript. Consider the following two sentences:

1. He was angry.
2. He slammed the door behind him and went stomping down the corridor, swearing under his breath.

They both say the same thing, but the second example demonstrates the character is angry without saying so directly.

‘Showing’ not ‘telling’ is a way of adding interest to your writing. You could open your novel by spending the first page describing your main character in detail, including personality traits, but it’s far more interesting to spread this out throughout the novel, so that the reader can extract this information for themselves. If you want to tell the reader that your character is anxious and nervous, maybe have them gnawing on their fingernails in several scenes. If a character is a chain smoker, you don’t have to tell the reader that. If the character lights a cigarette (or even several in quick succession) in every scene they are in, the reader will pick up on that soon enough.

An example of an author I think does ‘show, not tell’ well is Lisa Brackmann, who writes a series of crime novels featuring Ellie McEnroe, a young former soldier who was injured in Afghanistan. Though more or less physically recovered, Ellie is constantly drinking beer and swallowing pain killers with it, and these actions demonstrate aspects of her character quite clearly without us ever being told directly.

I think ‘showing, not telling’ is something that new writers often struggle with. It’s something that a writer gets better at the more they practise it. If you want to tell your readers that a character is untrustworthy, how would you do it? This would probably be a series of actions in which they repeatedly demonstrate that they go against their word, or betray other characters. This would be more engaging for the reader than another character declaring, early on the story, “I don’t trust Tom”.

Here ends the lesson on the fourth commandment of writing. Join me next week when we will touch on the importance of heeding the rules of grammar.

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3 comments so far

  1. blairbburke on

    Good advice, but it’s important to tell new writers that you don’t have to ‘show’ everything. Exposition has its place, but most of the time showing is a more effective way of drawing in the reader.

  2. sayssara on

    Yes, that is true Blair. Sometimes exposition does the job. It can be difficult to achieve the right balance, though.

  3. Lillith on

    I don’t like this piece of advice much myself. Telling can be very interesting and even powerful. It’s not that it’s bad advice, but that it should be phrased more like : Show what needs to be shown, Tell what needs to be told. If a bit of information is important but would weigh things down too much in its own scene, then just state it. If that scene would add something besides that tiny bit of info, then show it.


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