Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most important aspects of ‘good’ writing is the author’s ability to show rather than simply tell when writing. What does that mean? It means instead of simply telling the reader what is happening, you need to show them and make them feel as though they are a part of the story. When setting a scene or describing something try not to tell the reader what something ‘is’, instead allow the reader to experience the scene through the use of the five senses. What can you see? What can you hear? How does it feel? How does it smell? How does it taste? By incorporating the five senses when describing something, the reader can become immersed in the scene or story. The reader can put him or herself in the character’s position and relate to what is happening.

In class I sometimes do a writing activity with my students that I picked up from another teacher when I was doing my teaching rounds at university. The activity is called ‘Show, don’t tell’. I write a simple sentence on the board, for example: “It was a hot day.” The students must then rewrite this sentence using the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique and incorporate all five sense to create a more descriptive and engaging version of the sentence on the board. So if I take that simple sentence, “It was a hot day” and use ‘show, don’t tell’, I might end up with something like this:

“I squinted as I stepped out into the blazing sun, its yellow glare almost blinding me. The air carried the scent of burnt eucalyptus leaves. The crickets chirping, hidden from sight, were loud and clear: the quintessential sound of Summer. I had barely been outside for a few minutes, but already I could feel my skin beginning to burn under the sun’s intense gaze. Beads of sweat trickled down my face and onto my lips, filling my mouth with their salty taste…”

You probably wouldn’t go that over the top in your descriptions normally, but you can see how a simple sentence that merely ‘tells’ us that it is a hot day, can be transformed into a much more descriptive piece that shows the reader that the day is hot. You will notice that not once in this description do I use the word ‘hot’, but the reader does not need to be told that it is hot, they can infer this for themselves through the descriptions used.

I know that when I am writing, I can sometimes forget to show and I only tell what is happening, but when I go back to edit I pick out those offending sentences and rework them to ensure they are showing what is happening and not just telling.

I’ve just added a short piece to my short story collection titled ‘Once Like Them’, I think it somewhat exemplifies the way in which the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ can be incorporated into writing.

I would encourage anyone who wishes to improve their descriptive writing to have a go at the ‘show, don’t tell’ exercise. Just think of a simple sentence, then rewrite it using all five senses.

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8 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. I hate reading mimetic stories, and so I only write diegetic stories, no matter how often you critiques try to stuff the rule “show don’t tell” down my throat. It’s that plain and simple—period!

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    1. We all have our preferred narrative styles. I like to get inside the character’s head and become immersed in the story. I feel mimetic storytelling allows the reader to become more involved with the story, whereas diegetic storytelling results in distance between the reader and the narrative. For me it’s the difference between someone telling you what happened and experiencing it for yourself. This is my preferred way of writing and I also prefer to read stories written in this style, but like anything, it is not going to be for everyone.

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      1. I do not want to get immersed in a story, I want to observe and judge at a long distance from above. Maximum distance between reader and story is paramount for my ability of concentrating on a story to write — and even more to read.

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