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The True Meaning of the Phrase “Show Don’t Tell.”

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

“A writer can stop and tell us everything about a character, but eventually it will become meaningless, just a litany of facts, no better than a dictionary. It is the writer’s job to show us what his characters are like…by their actions. A writer can spend a page telling us his character is a crook, or he can show it…by...describing his taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone’s pocket and letting the reader judge for himself…Remember: Above all, readers like to make a text their own. This is why they stay with a book: to sympathize, empathize, project.”

-Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Show Don’t Tell. Editors have used this elusive phrase for so long it has lost its true meaning. How can you “show” something, when your only tool is words? This question has been asked of me many times by my writers. I have also heard writers say, “the editor keeps telling me to show not tell, but I thought that was what I was already doing.” The unfortunate truth is that editors often use buzz phrases like this, but in different ways to mean different things. My best advice would be to ask them what they mean specifically and with lots of examples. Never be afraid to ask your editor to clarify what they mean. Most editors are in this profession to help and educate writers. They are on your side. If you don’t understand something, ask.

In the meantime, I can offer you my understanding of the phrase and perhaps help you avoid ever receiving that tricky editorial suggestion.

When I tell my writers to “show don’t tell,” I really mean for them to slow down the plot by describing every bit of relevant action, feeling, thought, line of dialogue, and description as it would happen in “real-time” or, perhaps, even slower. This scene is not the time to summarize your action, have characters explain the action away, or use a lengthy diatribe to tell us what to feel or what conclusions, we the readers should take away from the story. This is the moment to show us what color her eyes turn when someone insults her or how she boldly jumped from the plane, not knowing if her parachute would open.

However, sometimes (rarely, but sometimes), I might tell my writers to “tell not show.” When I say this, I am asking them to, in as few words as possible, summarize the action or events of a scene. Sometimes, a scene contains necessary information, but the scene itself is too slow or tedious. In this case, it becomes essential to summarize what happened and what the character learned. We should never use this “telling” technique to inform readers about how to feel or what conclusions they should make; that is just bad writing.

When to “Show” –

Almost always (excepting the instances in which it is best to “Tell”)

Example of showing - “As Jimmy rode his bike down Milton street, he knew the time was upon him. The giant hill loomed over him. He pedaled faster, rising in his seat to gain as much speed as he could. It was do or die. If he didn’t make it to the store for the Benadryl, he would lose his mother. He pedaled so hard that he could hear the wind rushing past him, like the sound cars made as they passed by. His seven-year-old legs were starting to cramp, but he ignored the pain. As his legs grew weary, he felt himself start to roll backward…”

If, instead of the example above, I just said, “Jimmy rode his bike to the store to get Benadryl for his mother. It was a perilous journey,” it would lack all of the tension and drama of the example above. Going through each action and description as things are happening to the character, allows the readers to truly immerse themselves into the narrative.

When to “Tell” –

If something happens to the characters that provides necessary information to BOTH the reader and the characters AND the scene is so slow as to be boring, then, the writer MIGHT consider summarizing the events of that scene.

Example of Telling - “Jimmy had tried to ride his bike up the big hill on Milton street seven times. He had failed all seven times, always rolling back down in shame. This time would be different. It had to be different…”

In the example above, I don’t take the time to describe each of the seven attempts. Neither do the readers need or want to see all seven. They aren’t relevant to the story. Instead, I quickly tell the reader that he has tried and failed seven times. If placed before the showing example above, this short section would add drama to the scene, proving that sometimes telling is effective.

But here’s the catch, when you effectively “tell” your readers something, it will go unnoticed. Editors won’t take the time to say, “well done telling your readers that,” and readers won’t say, “that was a great bit of telling, wasn’t it?” If you can use this technique effectively, then it will hide itself in the story, snuggling up to the more eloquent descriptive scenes. But if it is not effective, then it will stick out like a sore thumb.

As you write, make sure to focus on writing captivating scenes that bring readers into the story using “real-time” descriptions, and don’t be afraid to slow down the action, this will help build suspense.

Check out also my FREE video class about the different types of exposition and how each can help you “show” an exciting scene.

Challenge: Show OR Tell! Think of an event that might or could happen to anyone, something mundane. Now, write two versions of the scene: one that “Tells” what happens and one that “Shows” it happening. Share your stories in the comments below.

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