Apr 20 2010

Show, Don’t Tell

Published by at 10:29 am under Writing Articles

1.  Whenever possible, give details instead of general statements. For example, a general statement would be “Tommy LaRouche is a brutal criminal.”  Generally it’s more effective to give the readers the evidence and let them reach their own conclusion.  For example, “Tommy ‘Powerdrill’ LaRouche is wanted for twelve kidnappings, eight counts of torture, five murders, and at least one kidnapping that resulted in murder by torture.  And don’t even think about how he got his nickname.”

2.  Put extra scrutiny into adjectives. Do they help establish a character or the plot?  Do they help the reader create a mental image?  Generally, I think adjectives create more interesting imagery when they describe a detail or action than when they describe something larger, like a character.  For example, saying “Batman is careful” is harder to visualize than an adverb phrase like “Batman carefully checked the door for wires and other signs of booby-traps.”

3.  “Showing” all the time is probably not possible. For one thing, it takes more space.  Calling somebody graceful is shorter than taking a sentence to describe something graceful he does.  However, if the trait is important to the scene, it probably deserves the extra space.

4.  In most cases, I’d recommend finding more specific alternatives for bland modifiers like “good,” “well” and “nice.” What kind of good are we talking about?  For example, if you say somebody is a good writer, it’s not clear whether you’re complimenting her sense of humor or attention to detail or superb wordplay or something else entirely.

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Beccaon 20 Apr 2010 at 2:32 pm

    I probably need this article xD and the dialogue tips, too, for sure.

  2. Trollon 20 Apr 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Can’t wait for tomorrow

  3. B. Macon 20 Apr 2010 at 6:10 pm

    If you can’t wait that long, you might find this comment interesting.

  4. margareton 30 Mar 2012 at 8:11 pm

    This is one of my main problem areas in writing. Would love to see more examples and ways to beat the ‘show don’t tell’ problem.

  5. YoungAuthoron 31 Mar 2012 at 11:00 am

    @margaret- same for me

  6. Nayanon 01 Jul 2013 at 2:30 am

    @B.Mac
    Below I am posting a part of a scene. It introduces a character named Nick who is a brilliant engineering student and likes to show off. Could you tell me if the writing counts as showing or telling ?

    Just as Jason entered the classroom, he saw Nick sitting alone.

    “Hey, when did you return from Germany? How did your presentation in The International Meet of Brilliant Minds go?”-Jason said.

    “Okay, I guess. I won a award something called ‘The Next Big Thing in Engineering’.

  7. Nayanon 01 Jul 2013 at 9:19 pm

    So what do you say, B. Mac? Will the above writing be counted as ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’?

  8. B. McKenzieon 01 Jul 2013 at 9:20 pm

    It works pretty well as showing, but I think what is being shown is that he’s more of an ass than brilliant or even a showoff. If the character is supposed to be somewhat likable, I’d recommend checking out any Sherlock Holmes for an example of a character who is not shy about being brilliant and pulls it off without unduly compromising his likability. Alternately, Tony Stark definitely is a flamboyant showoff, but he does it with more charm (e.g. outing himself as Iron Man at the end of Iron Man 1).

  9. NJHeroFan72on 15 Jul 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Just for some interesting insight on the “Show, Don’t Tell” mindset, here is a link to a video of Jack Reacher author Lee Child talking specifically about this topic. In short, he advises authors not to be afraid to “Tell” in stories, and he gives his reasons why. Just pay attention as what’s ok to “tell” and what you should “show.” Good stuff. You can look it up on YouTube under CFA Master Class: Lee Child (1/2) or copy and paste http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=I2d3PW3ec1k

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