“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice, and for good reason. Writers have a tendency to lean on descriptive statements, or “telling,” particularly in early drafts. When you’re starting a manuscript, it can be easier and faster to describe the broad strokes of a scene, such as, “She felt sad when she woke up. Her eyes were puffy. She got ready for school, wishing she didn’t have to go.” Getting a full rough draft down on paper is often more important than finessing each sentence or utilizing more nuanced language.
Once you’ve completed an initial draft, you can then focus on incorporating more action, dialogue, and sensory details—or “showing”—as you revise. For instance, the above lines might be revised to something like, “After three failed attempts, she gave up trying to put in her contacts and grabbed her glasses. Maybe the thick frames would disguise her puffy eyes. She couldn’t deal with Mrs. Windsor’s concerned questions today.”
Writing that “shows” these details tends to be more engaging and immersive, inviting readers to play an active role in the reading experience as they try to understand the characters and connect the dots of the plot. For example, readers might wonder, “Why are her eyes puffy? Has she been crying?”
“Showing” a character’s emotions also tends to read more authentically. While it can be simpler to name the emotion (“He felt angry.”), in real life most people don’t have the self-awareness to instantly name their emotions or consistently voice them to others. Instead, we often intuit how someone feels based on their words and actions (“He raced upstairs without speaking or even looking at her.”).
Writing that “shows” a character’s emotions can also make it easier for readers to understand them and how they interact with their world. A character who slams doors and shouts when they are angry will have a different personality and perspective from a character who becomes quiet and tries to avoid everyone. Together, these details help readers to emotionally connect with a character and story, which in turn leads them to feel more invested in the story’s outcome.
However, despite the importance of “showing,” the truth is that a book can’t be all “showing” and no “telling.” Not every piece of information needs to be demonstrated via action, emphasized in dialogue, or described via rich sensory details. Sometimes simple statements—“The school was built fifty years ago and hasn’t been updated since.”—are the most effective and concise way of moving a story forward.
Take these three examples:
- “It’s 6:37 a.m. My father is trying to hide the fact that he’s drunk. He calls me by my nickname to avoid slurring his words. He’s holding the steering wheel tightly.”
- “I wince as my father swerves into the next lane and overcorrects. The gray seatbelt pulls tight against my neck. Sunlight reflects off the dashboard, making me squint. ‘How are you already drunk? You shouldn’t even be driving!’ I say, hearing the bitterness of my voice.”
- “It’s 6:37 a.m. and my father doesn’t want me to know how drunk he is. ‘Sal? Are you listening?’ He calls me Sal instead of Salahudin so I don’t hear the slur in his words. Hangs on to our Civic’s steering wheel like it’s going to steal his wallet and bolt.” (from All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir)
While all three examples convey similar information, only Sabaa Tahir’s words effectively balance “showing” and “telling”—giving readers not just a sense of what is happening in this tense moment and how both characters feel about it, but of how this moment fits into the larger landscape of their lives and relationship.
Like All the Rage, great writing ultimately strikes a balance between “showing” and “telling” that is nearly invisible to readers. However, finding the balance that seamlessly fits your writing and story can take some trial and error. To do so, consider completing a revision solely focused on strengthening one of these areas, whether that’s increasing the action, developing your characters’ dialogue, exploring sensory details, or utilizing more concise descriptions. The end result will be a well-paced manuscript that allows readers to emotionally connect with the characters and to feel fully invested in the story.
Your Editor Friend,
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