Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

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7 Simple but Effective Tips for More Engaging, Persuasive Writing

Don’t just tell me your brother is talented… show me what he can do, and let me decide whether I’m impressed. To convince your readers, show, don’t just tell them what you want them to know.

There. I’ve just told you something. Pretty boring, huh? Now, let me show you.

My brother is talented.

There’s nothing informative, or engaging, or compelling about this sentence. You have no reason to believe or disbelieve me, and no reason to care. (TELLING is boring and unconvincing.)

My brother modifies sports car engines, competes in ballroom dance tournaments, and analyzes chess algorithms.

“Wow, that guy is talented,” you say to yourself. You didn’t need me to TELL you what you’re supposed to think, because I carefully chose those details. (They SHOW you the range of my brother’s talents.)

(Creative writers, see Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers, Crisis vs. Conflict, and Developing Ideas for Short Fiction.)

Contents

  1. Choose Specific Details That Show Your Point
  2. Give the Reader a Reason to Feel Your Emotions
  3. Provide Engaging Details That Imply the Main Point
  4. Show with Informative Details and/or  Emotional Language
  5. “Telling” States Facts; “Showing” Invites Deeper Understanding
  6. Showing Prefers the Specific to the General
  7. Sometimes, “Telling” Is Good

1) Choose Specific Details That Show Your Point

You won’t need to write a boring, uninformative and unpersuasive sentence like “Texting while driving is bad” if you can instead SHOW your point, through well-chosen details  (such as statistics, specific examples, or personal stories) that SHOW in a persuasive way.

Let’s consider this point: “This tired child needs a nap.” That’s pretty dry, so let’s try to make it more vivid and persuasive.

No The little girl looked so tired, she clearly needed a nap.
This sentence gets right to the point, but nothing about it engages the imagination or makes the reader want to keep reading.
Mabye The brown-eyed little girl wore a plastic Viking cap, and her mouth was sticky from candy. Standing there in her dress-up clothes, she looked more tired than I had ever seen a child look. But she was so very stubborn, I saw we were headed for a battle.
This version mentions the author’s reaction: this child is tired. It also offers a motive: the author must get her to take a nap. But what does wearing a Viking cap or having brown eyes have to do with being tired? These random details do give the reader something to work with — something to flesh out the bare claim, but the details don’t actually contribute to the main point.
Yes Her sleepy brown eyes hardened into red-rimmed slits. She cocked her plastic Viking helmet aggressively, the horns sticking out only a little more than her curls. One fist clutched a decapitated lollipop, the other a cardboard sword. She leveled the point at my chest. “You mean dragon!” she growled. “You’ll never make me nap!”
Now that I’ve added more battle-related details (the sword, the dragon, the “decapitated lollipop”), the Viking hat makes a little more sense, and we get the idea that we’re about to face an epic temper tantrum. The details provided in this version all SHOW the reader what’s at stake. But the “brown” in “sleepy brown eyes” is just a random detail, and could easily be cut. The important details, however, provide clues that you can assemble, so that you say to yourself, “Wow, that little girl is stubborn, and she sure needs that nap!”

But what if, when you read that version, the message you get is completely different?You might say to yourself, “That horrible girl deserves a spanking,” or “I hope naptime battles don’t crush her creative spunk.” The point is, you are interpreting what the details show, you are building on those details — you are engaging with the examples in a meaningful way.

For a given writing task, if communicating a precise, factual, word-for-word message (such as “the red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only”) is more important than engaging the reader’s emotions, imagination, and/or intellect, then in that case, telling is more efficient than showing.

But showing specific examples can help drive home the message you’ve told. Thus, the title of this page is “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” not “Show, Don’t Tell.”

2) Give the Reader a Reason to Feel Your Emotions

If you are writing a set of instructions or a professional e-mail, you don’t want to tease the reader by SHOWING indirectly. To convey complex technical details, TELL (“insert tab A into slot B”) and be done with it.

But if you want to engage the reader’s heart, mind, and imagination, SHOW with vivid details that generate, in your reader, the emotions you want to express. Rather than classify and list all the emotions that YOU felt, use specific details that give the READER a reason to feel those emotions.

No I’ll never forget how I felt after Fido died. I was miserable.
Simply naming the feelings that you experienced (telling your reader what you felt) is not enough to create interest in the reader. Can you find a way to generate, in your reader, the same feelings that you experienced?
Maybe If I live for a thousand years, I’ll never forget how utterly and terribly alone I felt after Fido died. Months and months went by, and it seemed that every little thing reminded me of him. I don’t know whether I am ever going to get over his death.
While the author has added specific details, those details merely assist the telling – they don’t actually give the reader a reason to love Fido,and to suffer along with the writer.
Yes Whenever puppies in the pet store window distracted me from our walk, Fido flattened his scruffy ears, growling. But he always forgave me. As his sight faded, the smell of fresh air and the feel of grass would make him try to caper. Eventually, at the sound of my voice, his tail thumped weakly on the ground. This morning, I filled his water bowl all the way to the top–just the way he likes it–before I remembered.
Reading this last revision (sniff!) always makes me sad.These carefully chosen details help us to understand the relationship between the pet and his owner.

  • We see the dog is jealous of puppies, we see that he grows increasingly weak, and we see the author is still in the habit of caring for this dog.
  • We don’t need to know what color the dog is or how cute his nose is (just as we don’t need to know what the author looks like).

Because the author does not supply a sentence that announces, “I loved Fido and still can’t believe he’s gone,” the reader is left to make that connection. That means the reader has to engage with the author’s details, and becomes more intellectually and emotionally engaged in the story as a result.

3) Encourage the Reader’s Involvement: Show Details that Imply the Main Point

No From the way she behaved in the crowded restaurant, you could tell Sally was attracted to the cute stranger in the black shirt. She tried a few things to get his attention, and eventually she thought she succeeded.
The author wastes no time providing the information, but the story is very thin… nothing interesting seems to be happening.
Yes That stranger had been scanning the room, and this time, Sally thought his eyes flickered in her direction. Wait — was that a half smile? Had he just put his hand on his heart? Or was he just brushing something off of his shirt? That shirt looked soft. Sally smiled.He’s kind of cute,” her roommate giggled.Sally casually looked away, twirling a curl. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, letting her eyes rest on the artwork, the flowers, a random face in the crowd, and found another excuse to laugh. Carefully turning her profile, she crossed her legs like her friends had practiced in middle school. That ought to do it, she thought.
The reader is left to figure out what’s going on, which is more engaging for a story. There is tension, and even a bit of character development.

The original version of Sally’s story tells me a few specific but isolated details — for instance, the color of the stranger’s shirt. But is that detail important? (It’s not.) Without coming right out and saying “Sally was attracted to the man,” the revision shows a series of different details (Sally notices the shirt, then wonders what it feels like) that come together to form a pattern– but the author does not come right out and announce what the pattern means.

Is Sally a sultry temptress at an embassy dinner, or a knobby-kneed waif about to embarrass herself at a high school dance? At this point, we can only imagine — and that keeps us reading.

No Winning is important to me. It doesn’t matter to me what I do, so long as I win. 
Unengaging and unconvincing. This is like saying “I am a hard worker” or “I am a fast learner.” Anyone can make those claims, but without proof they have no persuasive force.
Yes On the shelf in my bedroom is a first-place football trophy, and a first-place chess trophy.  Above my bed on one side is the head of a four-point buck I shot when I was 16, and on the other side is a framed photo of me winning “Junior Chef of the Year.”  Before you ask me to play cards, you should have a full wallet.  If your son wants to play marbles with me, he should know I play for keeps.  If your daughter starts crying while I’m playing house with her, I won’t stop until she looks me in the eye, and admits, “You won!”
Okay, the bit about trying to “win” while “playing house” is a bit extreme — I wouldn’t recommend putting that in a resume, but my point in including it in this example is to demonstrate how well-chosen details can generate an emotional response in the reader that a dry statement cannot.

4) Show with Informative Details and/or Emotional Language

No I like many different sports, from skiing to rock-climbing, but when it comes right down to it, I would have to say that ping-pong is my favorite sport.
Telling (No Details) — Snooze. This kind of writing can help you meet a word count, but it really boils down to “I like ping-pong.” All the rest is filler. There’s nothing in this passage that expresses how the author feels about ping-pong, and nothing that informs or persuades the reader.
Maybe Ping-pong is a really interesting sport. Casual players may find it relaxing, but to get really good, you need manual dexterity, agility and endurance.
Telling (Dry Details) — While the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling – this passage still starts out with “I like ping-pong.” A reader who doesn’t already love ping-pong will have no reason to change his or her mind.
Yes Ping-pong may look like a relaxing pastime, but for experts, winning the game requires manual dexterity, agility, and endurance.
Showing with  Informative Detail — While there’s nothing particularly engaging in this opening, if the rest of the paper demonstrates that, in order to make the transition from “relaxing pastime” to “winning the game,” you need “dexterity,” “agility” and “endurance,” then you see that this sentence isn’t just a random list of stuff to talk about. This opening line isn’t just throat-clearing or filler — it’s a carefully chosen table of contents, mentioning the topic of each of the supporting paragraphs.
Yes He’s drenched in sweat, his knuckles are white, he’s on the other side of the ping-pong table, and I’m about to bring him down.
Showing with Emotional Language — There’s no need for the author of the last sample to write, “I like ping-pong” or “ping-pong is more serious than you think,” because the vivid details allshow these points. The fact that the opponent is sweating means you need endurance. The fact that his knuckles are white suggest he’s nervous. The author’s claim “I’m about to bring him down” suggests that attitude and psychology play a role in ping-pong. This document might not be as technically or factually informative as the “Showing with Detail” paragraph, but if your goal is to convey the idea that ping-pong is worthy of serious attention, then you might motivate your reader to reconsider their opinion of the game.

5) “Telling” states facts or observations. “Showing” invites much deeper understanding.

No All the kids knew that Lucinda was the meanest kid in the third grade. She was prissy and cute, and she thought that meant she could get away with anything. She would always go out of her way to torment me. I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids, and the few kids I knew were just the guys I played chess with during recess — they weren’t really friends. Plus, I was clumsy. So I was a good target. She tormented me so much she made the third grade a living hell.
Okay, we understand the author wants us to think Lucinda is mean, but we don’t actually see her do anything. Does the narrator have a good reason to fear Lucinda, or is the narrator a whiner-baby? There’s not enough information for us to know (or care).
Yes When the recess bell rang, I grabbed my chess set and dashed to freedom, eager to win the daily tournament of outcasts. I didn’t look, but I knew Lucinda was watching, I could feel her curly locks swaying as her head tracked me. Of course, I tripped in the doorway. Tennis shoes and sandals stepped around me as I scrambled after pawns and bishops. And there was Lucinda, waiting for me to notice her. She smiled, lifted her shiny patent-leather shoe, and slowly, carefully ground her heel right on the head of my white queen.
Here, we read a detailed account of Lucinda’s behavior (she has a habit of going “after” the narrator; she waits until she has the narrator’s attention before crushing his queen), and we can judge for ourselves.

Both passages make the same point, but the second does a much better job of engaging the reader.

The second passage focuses in detail on one specific event. Instead of simply calling himself clumsy (as in the first passage), the author shows us one specific occasion when he trips, and the writing brings us down to the ground with him, so that we see what he sees and feel what he feels.

The second passage never comes out and says “I didn’t have any friends,” but the fact that nobody stops to help the narrator makes us gather that the guy is an outcast. We learn quite a bit about the author in just that passage.

Ultimately, there is no need to call Lucinda mean in the second passage, because that concept is conveyed effectively by the surprising detail of the shiny patent-leather shoe crushing the queen. There is no deadwood — it is packed with details, creating a more vivid emotional picture than the first one.

We actually learn something about Lucinda — she is not just being mean, she wants the narrator’s attention, too. Notice that she attacked the queen, of all pieces. Does she consider the chess set to be her competition?

6) Showing Prefers the Specific to the General

No He looked at me in a way that wasn’t exactly threatening, but still made me uncomfortable.
This is just a fancier way of tellingthe reader a feeling by stating something that happened and spelling out exactly what effect it had on you. What, exactly, did this guy do with his eyes, face, and body that made you uncomfortable? Describe his actions, and show your reader exactly what made you uncomfortable.

  • Did he waggle his eyebrows at you in a vaguely sensual manner?
  • Did he stare directly at you while taking a gigantic bite out of a chicken wing, so that bits of cartilage crunched in his mouth as he chewed?
  • Did he keep glancing up at a point just above your head, as if something was about to drop on you, and then laugh when you looked up to see for yourself?
No Clearly, something must be done about this terrible crisis.
The words “clearly” or variations (“nobody can doubt that…” or “as we all know”) are often signs that the writer isn’t entirely sure the point that follows is persuasive enough. (I confess, I use such words myself, so they can’t be all bad… obviously.)Instead of just announcing that a certain thing is “terrible” or “horrendous” or “the most hideous thing you can possibly imagine” and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should present evidence (vivid examples) that lead the reader to conclude, on his or her own, that this thing is terrible.

7) Sometimes, “Telling” Is Good

When our goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage, TELLING does the job quite well — particularly if it’s part of an overall strategy.

That’s the reason I didn’t call this handout “Show, Don’t Tell” — I called it “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” because it’s perfectly acceptable to TELL the minor details that add up to the point you want to SHOW. In fact, it’s necessary to TELL.

For instance, in the opening example, I simply TOLD you that my brother modifies sports engines. I could have SHOWN his interest in cars instead: “His hands are grease-stained, he owns NASCAR posters, and on Saturday afternoons, he’s usually under his car.” But to SHOW you his interest in cars, I had to TELL you details about his hands, how he decorates his house, and what he does with his time.

I carefully chose what details to TELL, expecting those details to add up in a meaningful way that SHOWS you something in an engaging way.

Yes “Our coach is a former champion wrestler, but now he is overpaid, overweight, and over forty.” –Dena Taylor
This example TELLS a string of details, carefully organized for humorous effect — and the speaker’s choice to present the coach this way gives us a glimpse of their relationship.Based on the speaker’s attitude, how do you think the team has been faring so far this season? What relationship does the speaker have with the coach? The combination of details and tone SHOW far more than what any individual detail TELLS.So this is an excellent use of TELLING minor details in order to SHOW a bigger point.
Yes “These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine
In stark contrast to the flowery language in political tracts designed for the nobility, Tom Paine uses stark, plain language to engage the common citizen.Later in the piece, he SHOWS with details exactly why he feels men’s souls are tried, and he persuades his audience what they should do about it. But here, he is TELLING something that the audience already agrees with, so that he can capture their attention and get them to listen to his bigger points.
Yes “I am your father.” — Darth Vader
The bluntness of this statement adds to the dramatic punch as Luke reacts to the news in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
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by Dennis G. Jerz

  • 08 May 2000 — posted in ORR
  • 15 Jun 2000 — minor edits
  • 31 Oct 2002 — added Wood’s comment on inference
  • Apr 2003 — revised, trimmed, added different examples
  • 03 Mar 2004 — corrected Vader quote.
  • 14 Sep 2006 — expanded Fido example; minor tweaking
  • 10 Sep 2010 — tightened writing; added ping-pong example
  • 23 Oct 2010 — added naptime example; ongoing tweaks
  • 30 Mar 2011 — more minor tweaks
  • 06 Apr 2011 — adding “texting” example; adding tail-thumping to Fido example; other minor edits.
  • 26 Jul 2011 — formatting; added ToC; beefed up “telling” section
  • 01 Feb 2012 — added passages about how “showing” can convey different messages to different readers, so it’s appropriate to “tell” when the exact words of a message are important.
  • 10 Feb 2012 — formatting tweaks

 

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119 thoughts on “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

  1. Pingback: Writing Index — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

  2. I totally understand the points you make but I fear my consice style of writing hamstrings my descriptive pieces. Example, i wrote a small Tolkien type setting where my MC walked into an inn. I said the fire was dwindling but didn’t show them. The reason I didn’t is because I didn’t deem it fundamental or important to the movement of the story. However, the reason for it dwindling was to keep the light to a minimum and to keep those unseen patrons to remain unseen. Hum, I think I’ve answered my question. I did say to a friend that the fire need slight clarification but I still felt it to be unimportant.

    Also, my imagination needs no guidance and thus I don’t really like being spoon fed to much information. Is that naive thought process? And if I were to write so would it mean i tell more than I show?

    Matt..

    • Well, there you go. “Don’t just tell” does not mean “always show everything.” You told a less-important detail that showed something about the setting that would later be important.

  3. I had a professor tell me not to show, but to tell. Being the young student that I was, I burned that into my mind. Now that I’ve ran into other professors and writers, I learend that I was taught some very bad habits and that I was on the right track the first time.

    Sadly, it’s hard to untrain something like that and it’s really hurt my writing. No matter how much I think I’ve gotten better, I still naturally tell and not show. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to untrain a habit that has crippled my writing because I simply can’t get away from what I’ve been taught.

    I would like to extend a large middle-finger to Edison Community College for bad instruction on a hobby that I hold most dear to me. How such a college became a State College after I left, I will never know.

    • Depending on the occasion, the needs of the audience, and your goals as a writer, telling can be quite effective. If you are writing warning labels, for instance, or legal documents, or a course syllabus, telling is more efficient and accurate. Showing is usually better at engaging the emotions, of course.

  4. Hi again D.!! :) here’s my story … tell me if its good or bad
    The Selkie Child

    Martin threw his net over the side of his fishing boat. It fanned out like a giant spiderweb. As he waited for his net to fill with fish, he watched seals on the rocks. Martin pulled his net in, docked his boat, and began to walk home. When he passed the rocks, he noticed the seals had left a small bundle.

    “It’s a baby girl!” Martin cried. Next to the baby was a seal’s skin.
    “This must be a Selkie baby,” whispered Martin. He had heard fishermen tell tales about beautiful creatures called Selkies. Selkies could change from a seal to a human by shedding their skin.

    Martin cradled the baby in one arm and tucked the seal skin under his coat and ran home. He opened the door and yelled to his wife, “Sela! The sea gave us a baby.”

    Sela scooped the baby out of Martin’s arms and said, “She’s beautiful.”

    “Let’s name her Morgan,” Martin said. “It means a ‘gift from the sea.'”

    Martin did not tell Sela that Morgan was a Selkie child and might want to return to the sea when she grew up. Instead, he locked the little seal skin in a trunk in the attic.

    Morgan grew up to be a beautiful child. Sela and Morgan spent the days swimming while Martin fished. Martin watched Morgan from his boat.

    “She’s almost as good a swimmer as her mother,” Martin said. “I will tell Sela the truth about Morgan as soon as I return from my long fishing trip.”

    The day Martin left for his trip, a storm came up the coast.

    Morgan stared out the kitchen window. “I’d like to go swimming.”

    “You cannot swim during a storm,” Sela said. “It’s too dangerous.”

    “I’m sure it’s peaceful under the waves,” Morgan said.

    The next morning, Sela and Morgan found pieces of Martin’s boat washed up on the beach. Martin never came home.

    That night, another storm came up the coast. When Sela drifted off to sleep she heard a familiar voice whisper, “I can’t rest until I tell you the truth!”

    “Morgan!” Sela whispered with fright. She ran to Morgan’s room. A bolt of lightning lit it up. The bed was empty. Sela searched every room.

    When Sela stopped in front of the attic door, the doorknob slowly turned.

    Trembling, she watched as the door creaked open. She whispered, “Morgan! Morgan! Are you in here?”

    There was no answer, so she quickly shut the door and locked it.

    “Morgan!” Sela cried. The wind was getting stronger. Sela ran down the steps. She peered through the kitchen window and saw Morgan standing on the rocks near the water.

    Sela stumbled through the heavy wet sand on the beach. Thick storm clouds covered the moon.

    “Mama,” Morgan said. “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong here?”

    Sela shook her head and said, “I belong here with you.”

    Morgan and Sela walked back up to the house. When Sela went to the pantry to get Morgan a towel, she heard stomp, stomp, stomp above her.

    “Someone is upstairs,” Sela gasped.

    Creeaakk! Sela knew the attic door was opening.

    Sela lit a candle. They tiptoed up the steps. The attic door was open.

    “Stay here,” Sela told Morgan. Sela stepped inside.

    “Mama!” Morgan cried. She peeked inside the attic.

    Sela stood very still. Something moved.

    A trunk suddenly slid towards her. She reached down and opened it.

    Sela felt something cold and wet inside the trunk. She held it up. She saw a tiny seal’s skin.

    “Come with me!” Sela said. She grabbed Morgan’s trembling hand and led her down three flights of steps to the basement.

    Sela showed her daughter the secret of her past.

    Sela moved a pile of boxes and found a large chest.

    “I hid this here years ago,” Sela explained. She pulled out a seal’s skin.

    “What is it?” Morgan whispered.

    “It’s a seal’s skin,” Sela answered. “I’m a Selkie.”

    “This is your seal skin,” Sela showed Morgan the smaller skin. “Your father must have known you were a Selkie. He just didn’t know how to tell me.”

    Sela explained how she had fallen in love with Morgan’s father when she was young. She hid her seal skin from him and gave up her seal life. “I always longed for the sea,” Sela said to Morgan, “but I could never leave you. Tonight you will see just how peaceful it is under the waves.”

    Sela and Morgan ran to the beach and slipped into their seal skins. As they swam, they saw a familiar boat drifting along with the tide.

    “Look, Mama,” Morgan whispered. “It looks like Papa’s boat.”

    Sela and Morgan thought they could see Martin’s boat out on the water.

    Sela looked up and saw the ghostly figure of her husband standing on the boat’s deck. A wave splashed over Sela and Morgan. When they wiped the water out of their eyes, the boat was gone.

    The End!
    so what do yea think Dennis? hope u answer me soon! xD thanks
    ~ Rachel R.

  5. I like the plot twist with Sela. I’m not sure I found the ghost part of the story as successful. Typically fantasy tries to do just one thing at a time. A ghost story is creepy because ghosts are not of our world. If you accept a world with selkies, then a ghost seems less extraordinary.

    There is a nice parallel in your story, that the man and woman are both holding a secret from each other, but since nobody doubts the existence of selkies, or wants to destroy a selkie, and we don’t see Sela struggle with a choice between the sea or Martin, there’s not much conflict to keep the plot going.

    This passage is wordy:

    She pulled out a seal’s skin.
    “What is it?” Morgan whispered.
    “It’s a seal’s skin.”

    The reader already knows what it is because you’ve TOLD the reader, so there’s no tension, and no real point to the revelation in the dialogue that follows.

    Why would the selkies abandon one of their babies? I assume it wasn’t an accident, since the other selkies could have followed and tried to get the baby back. When I just did a quick Google search for images of selkies, I got the clear idea that selkies don’t wear clothes under their sealskins, so would a seklie baby be a “bundle”? Would it need any kind of wrappings?

    • The plot was osmmm…

      But I think it could’ve been a lot more better if there’d have been a continuous flow…

  6. Hi Dennis, I want to thank you for the tips and to ask you, if I want to become a writer is it better for me to write short stories first, to practice? or should I just go ahead and write a novel?

    thanks.

    • Sculptors start with clay before they invest in buying a slab of marble. Your first work won’t be your best, so it’s probably better to write a lot of short stories first, rather than a single novel. But if you’ve got an idea for a novel that really inspires you, go for it. There is no single correct answer.

  7. Pingback: Tips Mengerjakan GgioSoi Missing Scenific Event! | —shunkan no ai…

  8. Hi, I am writing a story and I need to drop little hints that one character is in love with another, without totally giving it away until the end. Can you help???
    thanks.

  9. Thanks this is helpful but i have a question. After “showing not telling” can we just give away what we were describing? Because sometimes i read stories that use this technique but after reading the description, i still had no clue what they were talking about! Help!!

    • There is no hard and fast rule. In some cases the showing may be obscure and ineffective; in some cases naming whatever you’ve just shown is a waste of words and an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Try it out, find a few people who will be honest with you, and ask what they think.

  10. This is just the type of website that I was looking for to help me in my writing.

    I have a blog where I write a short story every day and was wondering if anyone honest would go on there and give me feedback on my stories so I can improve as a writer.

    Thank you!

  11. “I disagree,” That’s what MY creative writing teacher told me about show don’t tell.
    “If you only SHOW, time seems to tick on reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaally slow. For example, my character in my story starts off by eating a cereal and going to school. Who wants a detailed paragraph about walking to school?”

    • I can’t think of any writing rule that’s automatically right (or wrong) 100% of the time.

      The title of this page is not “Show, Don’t Tell.” I chose the title “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” specifically because, as your teacher notes, telling is often effective.

      If eating breakfast is not important to your story, then of course the pointless details are a waste of words. But I can imagine a story in which the breakfast scene is a vital clue.

      What if you you start your story with a detailed scene of a character frying something up in a pan, selecting spices and inhaling aromas, setting a place for one at the kitchen table, and settling down and savoring each bite. If so, you are sending a signal to the reader that this scene is somehow important. Whether the SHOWING is successful depends entirely on what happens next in the story.

      Let’s imagine in the next scene, we learn the guy who just finished his breakfast killed someone the night before. His deep involvement in his breakfast could mean he’s totally unaffected by his crime, or maybe he’s in shock and is about to have a mental breakdown.

      Or, if you include a line from a police officer saying some of the victim’s flesh is missing, then in retrospect the breakfast becomes a horror scene… what was it that he was eating?

      The point is not to show randomly, but selectively.

    • In fact, if you were to write about how your character is eating a bowl of cereal and walking to school that means the writer is telling the reader what to see. However, not many writers show how the characters are seeing the world around them.

  12. Pingback: Show, Don’t (Just) Tell — Jerz’s Literacy Weblog « Evangeline Warren

  13. While writing a short story, how much details in describing the characters and the surroundings is required. When I write, I usually only mention actions and shape up my story. Please read and advice: wagatale.blogspot.com

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  15. I feel like my ideas are good, my story plot is good, but I just cant make my story flow. It sounds choppy and sometimes steers off topic. for example,
    “He looked at me like all hope was lost. I couldn’t bear to stand the fact that I would lose him, but we both knew it would happen. The time that clock struck 12, it was over. I wanted to make these last final hours worth while. I wanted to show him I care. He took my hand and led me off to the edge of the rooftop. I saw him take a deep breath, his chest slowly stretching up, then down in the same fashion. I wanted to tell him I loved him, right then and there, but just couldn’t.” Not sure how that would sound to other people.. but I just don’t think it flows.

    • Rather than TELLING me that his look meant “all hope was lost,” you might instead SHOW me details that let me infer that answer.

      His shoulders sagged, and his eyes wouldn’t meet my gaze. When a gust of wind tipped over the vase on the table between us, neither of us made a move to pick it up. We just watched the water spread out and drip off of the table, the stain on the carpet spreading silently as the clock struck 12. For some reason, he was still holding my hand. I could see him take a deep breath, but he let it out slowly; why wasn’t he speaking? Had I hurt him that badly? Why wasn’t I on my knees, apologizing and telling him that I loved him? Why, of all things, was I thinking of a ham sandwich right now? The sandwich that we had shared — but that I had paid for — on our first date?

      Okay, having the gust of wind conveniently appear just at the right time is a bit cheesy, and I have no idea why a sandwich would matter at this point, but the point is she’s NOT thinking of his kisses, or his eyes, or his arms around her… all that suggests she’s not as in love with him as she would like to be, and maybe he knows it.

      Announcing what his look meant, announcing your inner thoughts, announcing how you felt about the fact that you couldn’t’ speak — those all pull me away from experiencing the scene for myself.

  16. Pingback: Why most organizations fail at delivering great customer experiences | Designing Change

  17. Hi Dennis,
    I’m currently in highschool and i love writing and reading. However I have never gotten above a B. My teacher has been telling me that i need to work on my langauge. I’ve tried but it doesn’t seem to be working. What should i do?

    P.S Your advice on how to involve the reader has been really helpful.

    • Read.

      Read, read, read.

      Magazines, newspapers, the classics of literature, comics, fanfiction, biographies, textbooks, even the front page of Wikipedia.

      It doesn’t matter what, so long as it’s good writing.

  18. This is a quick passage from a book I am currently writing. (Any feed back is good just tell me if you can visually see what is going on in this passage and how it makes you feel or how I can make it better).

    A bloodcurdling scream echoed loudly through the empty dark corridors. Jeremy shot up in his bed, his body cold as ice and his face numb. The scream still ringing in his head like a bell, he removed the bed sheets off his body slowly and quietly. He swings his legs over the edge and planted his bare feet on the cold, damp hospital floor. The room he was in was pitch black, additional to no windows present to let in any natural light. He extended his arms and started to move about the floor. His foot taps his shoes just inches away from bed, he quickly picks them up and franticly puts them on his feet and tries to tie them, but his hands were shaking so bad he could barely do that. He ends up stuffing them deep into his shoes. He slowly navigated his way to the door sliding along the wall. He makes it to the door, he reaches for the handle when he hesitates, there was no telling of what was on the other side of that door, or if he’s ready to face it…

    • Try to omit unnecessary description. Any bloodcurdling scream would have to be loud. How else would a scream ring, other than like a bell? Echoes only exist where there is empty space, so we don’t need to be told the corridor is empty if we already know the sound is echoing in it. Ditto for cold/ice/numb/cold. I haven’t spent much time in hospitals, but I’d bet most hospitals have equipment with blinking lights, at least small windows in the doors, and the corridors will always have some light in them because the night nurses will be doing their rounds. So it’s hard for me to accept the total darkness as realistic. Maybe he’s been sedated, or he’s injured, and his disorientation or suffering would make him feel vulnerable.

      Why does he remove his sheet slowly, but get frantic whe he ties his shoes? What does he put into his shoes? The sentence says “them,” but the closest plural noun is “hands,” not “feet.”

      Did you notice your writing switches between past tense and present tense?

      I think you did a good job capturing a mood. Who is Jeremy? Why should the reader care about whatever he’s facing? Caring about Jeremy will make us more engaged in the story about whatever he faces in this creepy environment.

  19. Pingback: College Writing - Thursday’s class (6/7) and assignments for Week 2

  20. This is a small bit in the short story I’m writing. Can I have some feedback?

    Japan’s dry chilly air suspended outside, occasionally a puff of winter breeze blew and made us shrivel up in our coats, the sky wore a light, empty grey throughout the horizon as we walked through the rows of cramped suburban houses. My grandmother pulled out a small black velvet pouch out of her purse and handed my grandfather, mother, brother and lastly me each a set of Buddhist prayer beads. “Don’t loose them.” She squeezed my hand in an attempt to warm them, but my hands felt a little colder than before. Soon the temple’s distinct roof emerged out of the rest and soon the large old structure of umber wood and silver tiles gradually appeared in front of our eyes. It seemed isolated and detached from its surroundings, bulging out of the crowd of congested Japanese urban housing. We walked through the pale wooden gates of the temple and a small garden dressed with Japanese bonsai pine trees and a small shallow pond that reflected the deep green foliage perfectly. As I peaked into the pond and among the small fishes scattered around, I saw my reflection. Black pants, black shoes and a black coat swayed along in the surface of the silvery water. Was this formal enough? Was this appropriate? My brother called my name in an awkward tone. I looked up and hurried into the temple’s entryway.

    Thanks

    • dry/chilly/winter/coats, air/puff/breeze/blew — trust yourself to set the scene in fewer words. How could you see the horizon if you are surrounded by cramped suburbia? If this is the opening, I would hold off on the precise list of who “we” are, though it was a good idea to try masking the list in the form of action. Maybe instead of listing who got the beads, focus on character. Grandfather at grandmother’s elbow, mother with her nose in a book, father a bit sullen in the background, brother elbowing you out of the way…

      I would not say “My grandmother handed me a Catholic rosary,” I would just call it a rosary… so unless the prayer beads are unfamiliar to your protagonist, just call them prayer beads, and find some other way to specify the religion.

      Lose, not loose…

      How do we know what your grandmother’s intentions are?

      Are we in suburbia, or “urban housing?”

      No need to label the bonsai tree as Japanese — the previous sentence identified the setting. Peeked, not peaked.

      From “pants” I assume the protagonist is a boy, but usually it is girls who assess their looks in a reflection. How much of your shoes can you really see in a reflection in a fish pond? You can see all that just by looking down, but what will really convey emotion is the face (is your protagonist too self-conscious to even look at his/her face?)

      Announcing that the tone of the brother’s voice is awkward is telling. Can you show, instead? Have the brother look at something — a watch, grandfather’s scowling face, the hipster slogan on your T-shirt, the red glowing eye of the robotic cyborg sentry, or whatever — then have the brother bite his lip, to hint to the reader what he is nervous about.

      Or is “awkward” the right word? It seems to say the brother is worried for some unstated reason, but the other lines suggest it should be the protagonist’s worries we focus on.

      I am somewhat intersted in the family dynamic… I always like a little clue as to the child’s age…. Is the protagonist holding mommy’s hand and begging to be picked up by daddy, or rolling his/her eyes and sassing at the parents?

      I get from the grandmother’s cold hands that she will probably die soon, but that may be too obvious. A grandmother’s sudden urge to pass on her heritage may be foreshadowing enough.

  21. How do I subtly show that someone (female) isn’t in love with the protagonist (male), but manipulates him with the knowledge that he loves her?

  22. Your title says it all … I need to learn how to show my characters, not just tell about them. I am attempting to write a story about two manga characters to submit by December – being very unsuccessful.
    In High School, creative writing came easily to me, but then I landed a job in the science world. This meant I learned techincal writing to create protocols.
    Years later, trying to write creatively is non-existent. My descriptions end up simply stating facts, giving readers no feel for the story, and making it feel blah.
    Secondly, I keep switching back and forth between present tense and past tense. My grammar’s been thrown out some window (though maybe it wasn’t that good to begin with)!
    I’ve been reading other great stories written about these two characters and still can not get the swing of it.
    I started searching for books that could possible be of use to me (I learn best by example), and I was wondering if I could impose on you by sending you the first page with my ‘new’ attempt?
    If this is okay with you, how do I send it? Re-writing it onto this post or will it accept a ‘copy and paste’ from my word document to this post?
    Anyway, I need HELP! Any suggestions are better than what I know now. Thanks!

    • While I can’t promise to give detailed feedback on a long section, feel free to post a brief passage where you’ve tried something new or where you’re struggling, and I’ll see what comes to mind.

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