As a writer, have you ever been told to show don’t tell? There are so many rules but this one creeps in all the time.
You eagerly nod in agreement—yeah yeah—show don’t tell–of course you do that, right? But really you don’t have a clue as to wth they’re talking about. Believe me, you’re not alone.
The first time an editor scrawled SDT across my page, I had no idea what was going on and I was afraid to ask. Crazy, I know, but when she told me it meant show don’t tell I was seriously confused because I felt like I was “showing”.
Let’s examine the simple dictionary definitions—
Tell: “communicate information, facts, or news to someone in spoken or written words.”
Show: “be, allow, or cause to be visible.” It’s also about perception in quality, emotion, or characteristic.
I learned that what I’d been doing was using a bunch of adverbs (a word that describes an action, an adjective, or even a whole sentence. Adverbs often end in ly) to describe communicated actions.
For example: He angrily walked across the room. I thought this was “showing” but it is actually “telling”. In this example, I’m telling the reader how the man is feeling. Contrast it with this: He stomped across the room with his hands balled into fists. This is “showing”…
I’m not telling you anything but conveying a picture for the reader to draw their own conclusion.
Once the concept is understood it becomes easier for the writer to paint a scene with words that illustrate the emotion and action within it.
Writers need to internalize the notion of show don’t tell because it will make your work stand out in a positive and professional way.
It begins with the writer taking ownership of the lens through which the reader is viewing the story. Ask yourself: what do I see? How do I know how a character is feeling a certain way without stating it? Is there a better way to convey this behavior or emotion?
Below is a chart that some brilliant person put together (original source is unknown—thank you whoever you are) to illustrate the stark difference between show and tell.
This chart lays out in a clear (actually a bit blurry…lol–but you’ll get the idea) and concise
So, keep in mind, what you want to do is consider the actions that convey (show) a particular scene, sentiment, or emotion.
Practice on these sentences. Change them into show don’t tell.
Some of these are tough. Think of spaces–only two steps across the room–that shows the room is small. What does the cold actually do? what do you wear? Imagine yourself observing things through the lens of the camera and show the emotion instead of naming it.
- It’s a cold winter day.
2. The room was hot and humid.
3. The woman was surprised when everyone jumped out and shouted Happy Birthday.
4. The dog looked very big and mean.
5. The kitchen was small and cramped.
6. The cookie was delicious.
7. On the mantle there were at least one hundred pictures and figurines.
8. She was an elderly woman pushing a grocery cart through the store.
9. “Get out of my house,” she said angrily.
10. I felt so happy when I saw him get out of the car.
Don’t hesitate to send me your answers in a message if you want feedback.
That’s it. I hope this helps with that mysterious concept of show, don’t tell. Let me know how you did and remember to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss anything.
25 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell–A Quick Lesson You’ll Actually Get”
That was maybe the best break-down of Show, Don’t Tell that I’ve ever seen.
Thanks Sally. Make sure you share so all can learn. xo
Very good take on that. I think I knew that but I was not aware of as much as I should. Thanks for the tip.
Hi Michael. Thanks for the comments. It’s one of those concepts that once you are aware then you ‘get’ it. Happy Writing.
That’s a wonderful exercise! I too think I show more than I tell, but when I look back at my manuscript it’s all just descriptions of feelings instead of the actions themselves. Thanks for sharing, Faye.
Stuart! Thank you. That makes me very happy that post helped you. It can be a tricky concept but now you’ll be able to truly ask yourself whether you’re “showing” or “telling”. Good Luck! Thx for commenting. Much appreciated.
Always an excellent reminder. Always so crucial to keep in mind. Tough to get at first. Still working on it all the time.
Thanks Patti. Yes it’s one of those crucial things to learn and keep practicing. Thanks for reading and commenting. Appreciated.
Thank you for taking the time to explain this to us! Very helpful.
Thanks Nancy. It’s a slippery concept but once you “get” it then it makes the writing much better. xo
Very good description and helpful. Shared it with my writing group.
Hi Anita! Thank you for the kind words. Glad the post is helpful. That’s awesome.
Those are great tips, thank you for sharing!
Thank you Svet! I hope they are useful to you. Happy Writing.