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Show Don’t Tell

My daughter’s teacher asked me to come talk to the kids (third graders) about writing, specifically “show don’t tell.” As a writer, I know when I’m being told rather than shown something. But how do you teach that?

“Tell me a story.” Well, no. We don’t really want to be told stories, we want to be shown them. When I write a play or film script, I don’t have to worry so much about the showing versus telling because I know the end result will be a “show” of some kind. The actors and director will do the showing. But when writing a story or novel, I have no actors, directors, wardrobe people. I have to take a picture that is in my head and put it in someone else’s head using only words. (Well, and hopefully a great cover artist.)

Here is what I told the kids: “We have five senses. And we need to use them all in our writing. We need for the reader to not only know in his or her head, but in his or her heart too. They need to be connected to the main character and the story and feel like they are right there with them.”

Then I gave them this story that I’d written the night before:

Emilie lives on the planet Rigel with her mother, father, brother, and dog. One morning she woke up late and had to rush to get ready for school. She ate her breakfast on the way to school. When she got to school, she realized she had forgotten her science homework. Her teacher made her redo it during recess. Emilie didn’t get to play. After school she went to ballet class and realized she had also forgotten her shoes. She had to sit and watch the other students practice, and her teacher lectured her in front of everyone about being more responsible. By the time Emilie got home, she was ready for the day to be over. She ate dinner, did her homework, and went to bed early so she would not be late again.

It’s all tell. There’s probably a perfectly good story in there, but we don’t know anything about Emilie. How old is she? We only know she goes to school. For someone living on another planet, her world seems an awful lot like ours. We can feel sorry for Emilie in a way, but we don’t feel sorry for Emilie because we aren’t connected to her or her frustration or disappointment or any other emotion she might have due to all this happening to her.

The kids went to town. We talked about the sounds and smells that could be added as details. “Let’s hear the alarm clock and smell the breakfast,” I suggested. “Let’s hear the other kids playing and see the sunlight coming through the window of the classroom where Emilie is stuck working.” We talked about dialogue that might give us a better feeling of how Emilie is feeling. “The way a person talks tells us a lot about them. Instead of just knowing there was a lecture, what if we heard it as dialogue?” The kids mentioned wanting to see more action, use more verbs and adjectives. We diverted into world building for a bit and discussed how to show that Emilie lives on another planet (“Is she human or an alien?” one kid asked, a valid question)—or maybe the writer should just change the setting to Earth if it’s going to be so much like Earth anyway. The kids had lots of great ideas and comments, and I was glad they were so engaged in the activity.

“Show don’t tell” is something we hear a lot, and we all sort of know when a writer is telling rather than showing, but it’s helpful—even to someone like me who has been writing forever—to be reminded, and to boil it down a bit.

  • Remember that writing means taking a picture in your head and putting it in someone else’s
  • Use all five senses when writing
  • Use dialogue to help show character
  • Use active verbs
  • Use adjectives
  • Provide details so readers feel like they can see and be there

Sure, there’s such thing as too much detail, but it’s always easier to take stuff out than go add it back in.

What are your rules for showing rather than telling? And if you’re not a writer, have you ever run into a book that you felt was too tell-y? That talked at you rather than involving you in the story? On the other hand, what books have you read that pulled you in?

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Writer/Screenwriter

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