What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

Show don't tell - literative

Jennifer Mendez The Writing Process

If I have learned anything in college, and through work on writing for visual mediums, it’s this: show, don’t tell. Every writer has heard this, but only an experienced writer truly knows what it means. Luckily, you don’t have to be an experienced writer, if you have someone thoroughly explain it to you.

By now, you might be thinking “show, don’t tell is self-explanatory, what’s the big deal?”

Simple: that your characters’ actions, every single one, need to be a reflection of their inner workings. That even without the first-person monologues or a character’s inner thoughts, the readers can still pick up valuable information regarding the character’s thoughts, feelings, and motives.

Now imagine how tricky things get when you are writing in the first-person!

Showing Thoughts

“I couldn’t believe how cynical he was, capable of standing in front of me without so much as remorse for his actions.”

Sounds like this particular character is telling you her thought process, first-person, of course. What would it sound like if she was to show you, rather than tell you? Could  you make her thoughts clear? Maybe it would sound something like the following:

“He stood in front of me, straight-faced and calm. My eyes wide, I couldn’t say a word.”

Notice, it’s still in first-person, but it’s her telling you actions, not thoughts. You get the information you need in order to visualize it. So in essence, you’re seeing the scene, rather than being in her mind. That’s show, don’t tell. You still get the man’s lack of empathy, the fact that he’s completely unaffected. The woman is shocked into silence, clearly affected by his cold demeanor and attitude toward the issue at hand.

Showing Emotion

“I felt a giant hole inside of me where the love had once been. As I lied there, I felt it grow wider, bigger, until I cried. He was gone, he’d always been gone, and I was empty.”

In the next scene, the woman is clearly devastated. The man is now gone and she feels empty, as she tells us. What would this particular scene read like if she were to show you these feelings, rather than blatantly tell you how she feels? Consider:

“As I lied there, tears slowly began to caress the side of my face. I curled up into a ball, the smallest I possibly could, and held myself together.”

Notice the hints thrown in: she holds herself together because she feels like she’s falling apart, reminiscent of the hole that she originally said was getting larger and larger. She holds herself because no one is there to hold her. She’s alone and clearly crying, so she’s depressed, lost in a sea of emotion that she’s not telling us, but showing us.

Showing Motive

“As I saw them there, lying in each other’s arms, I felt the pain evaporate, and anger take its place. The rage running through my veins, I took in the scene, and called his name. I wanted him to see me pull the trigger…And I did.”

Note, the character motives are made clear as the story progresses. This is always the case. Every event leads up to something or another and puts it into context. However, when something truly significant happens, it is important to explain it further, leading right up to it, for tension and drama. How would it read if she left the emotion and thoughts out of the equation, and just focused on the motive?

“As I saw them there, lying in each other’s arms, my face morphed into a devil’s. I bore my eyes into their every motion, their every caress, and called his name. He looked over at me, eyes wide. He began to stutter, but I silenced him with a bullet.”

Notice here, the actions are the focus once again. More detail is provided, so the readers can visualize the scene. Motive is clear: not only did he cheat, and show no remorse, but he also hurt her by continuing to cheat. She went from crying over him, to seeing him cheat, and that was a turning point for her. The moment she snaps.

Summary

To show, not tell, all it takes is an elimination of thought, emotion, and motive, and an increase in action detail. Readers shouldn’t be told a character’s inner workings, they should be able to visualize it as they read, so they feel like they’re watching it all happen. When writing anything, it is crucial that the obvious isn’t jammed down a reader’s throat. Readers like to connect with the character and analyze the actions. Don’t take that away from them.


We at Literative.com believe that if you truly want to make your writing stand out in the marketplace, then practice (more specifically; diligent practice) is how to make yourself more accepted and less likely to get trampled by criticism. With that said you are strongly encouraged to enter our monthly flash fiction writing contest challenges.

About the Author

Jennifer Mendez

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Jennifer Mendez is a writer/editor based out of Maryland. She's written for companies like Etsy and ThinkGeek. Hire her for article writing, blog post creation, or book editing services at her site, www.jennifermendez.com.