Archive for the 'Show Don’t Tell' Category

Apr 04 2012

Show, Don’t Tell: How Much of Your Story Is Implied?

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

As much as possible, mentally engage your readers by giving them clues they can use to draw conclusions and inferences.  Instead of just telling your readers “the security is incredibly tight at this military base,” remind us of the foggy day the guards fired three rockets at what turned out to be an angry llama.  It’s far more memorable and interesting than telling us what to think/feel.


Are you “showing” enough of your story?  One way to check is to see how much of your story is implied.  For example, on any given page, how times can the reader infer something rather than just read a conclusion you gave to them?  My rule of thumb is that each page should give us room to make an inference (rather than tell us what to think/feel) at least twice.  Show us the llama.  That may sound difficult, but you have a lot of possibilities.  For example…


  • Characterization.  Can we make inferences about personality traits, demographic traits, or any other information that might develop a character?  (For example, in the excerpt below, the character doesn’t say how old he is, but there are clues).
  • A character’s thoughts/feelings/beliefs.  For example, is there any evidence implying a character is lying or putting up a facade? Is there any evidence implying that a character’s beliefs are incorrect?  (For example, in the scene below, the main character is probably wrong about his father in at least one crucial way).
  • Motivations and plot. Why does a particular character do X rather than Y? For example, in the excerpt below, if you think about why a murderer might poison a victim rather than shoot him, you probably know more about the victim than his son does.
  • Setting.  Can we figure out anything about the setting beyond what the announcer has told us?


Here’s the opening paragraph of I Am the Jackal:

There are a lot of things that could wake you up in the middle of the night in Bellem—you know, that don’t involve gunfire. Cop cars, cop sirens. Shattering glass. Sometimes yelling from the streets, screaming, sometimes the guys trying to party in the apartment next to you. Sometimes normal things like phone calls. And sometimes phone calls from the hospital, saying that your dad’s in the E.R and that he’s been poisoned and he’s convulsing and, would you please come to the hospital right now for him, only I don’t hear that part too well ‘cause by then the only thing I can hear is Mom screaming “GET OUT HERE, SETH!”, a slamming door, and nothing else.


What sort of inferences were you able to make?  Here are some I came up with, starting with the most obvious.

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