Use Words To Show Not Tell

Introducing me as a guest speaker in a sixth-grade classroom, the teacher asked the students if they could tell me the number one rule for creative writing. In one voice, twenty-seven excited kids yelled out: "Show, don't tell!"

Perhaps it's not the number one rule (There are no rules, remember?), but it's pretty good advice.

The difference between showing and telling is this:

Telling: Katie was humiliated when the other kids laughed at her. She tried to tell them that what happened wasn't her fault.

Showing: The other kids were all staring at her, and some of them had their hands over their mouths to hide their smirks and giggles. Katie felt the blood rush to her face and knew she was turning bright red. "It wasn't my fault," she tried to say, but the words made her choke. Salty tears stung her eyes. She blinked hard to keep them from sliding down her face, but it didn't work.

In writing a story, you have four ways to give the reader information: action, dialogue, description, and exposition. When you use action and dialogue, you are showing. When you provide description and exposition—background information and explanations of what's going on—you are telling.

When you show readers what's happening, you keep us firmly inside the story, participating in the events. You evoke in us the feelings of your protagonist or viewpoint character, or the memory of those feelings, increasing our sense of identification with her. In the example above, our empathy with Katie increases when we are shown, not just told, the predicament she's in.

Telling keeps us at arm's length. Pauses in the action, even to give us important information, can pull us back out of the story world. A friend of mine gripes when she reads a story and encounters what she calls expository lumps—points when the action stops while the author spoonfeeds us large chunks of information.

You avoid this problem when you take the gravy approach to fiction writing: Stir tidbits of description and exposition into the action and dialogue, blending them all smoothly and smashing up any big lumps.

Showing may require more words than telling, yet it's faster reading. A short story writer doesn't have the luxury of space that a novelist does, so at times you'll need to summarize crucial information for the readers' benefit. But as much as you can, use these gravy-making techniques:

• Think in scenes. Structure your story as a series of scenes that fix both characters and readers firmly in a particular time and place. Move quickly from one scene to the next, without lengthy transitions.

• Keep the action going. Weave in the background material a line or two at a time. That way you don't give readers a chance to wander away from the scene.

• Let the characters do the explaining. Put important information in dialogue and give us the pleasure of discovering it by eavesdropping. Let one character explain things to another who needs the information as much as we do.

• Use flashbacks. If we need to know about a salient background incident, time-travel us back to the moment when it occurred. Make the flashback a little scene of its own, with characters in action in a specific time and place.

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Responses

  • akseli
    How to show not tell short story?
    8 years ago
  • mimosa
    What is the number one rule in writing a story?
    8 years ago
  • Asmara
    What words are show and tell words in writing?
    8 years ago

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