What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means

What does “show, don’t tell” really mean, anyway?

Last week Chuck Sambuchino posted my article “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” on his Writer’s Digest blog, Guide to Literary Agents, and one of my seven things was this:

Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.

Here’s an example of a moment in Brotherhood, in which I don’t tell the reader what to feel. Instead, I describe what the character hears. What you need to know is that it’s dark and Shad is standing alone on a street corner, having trouble seeing through the little eyeholes in his Klan garb:

The closer the men got to Shad, the slower their footsteps. He heard caution in their feet, heard the pitch of their voices drop from easy to hushed. They’d seen him, and they were working out what to do, whether to approach, how wide of a berth to give him.

What would you feel if that were you in the dark on that street corner? Here are two more scenes. Read these snippets and enter into these moments and see what emotions come up inside you:

Nicholas Bullen’s hand silences me again. Long fingers for a man his size, I notice; they’d look even longer if he wore a smaller ring. I imagine that hand closing around my throat, squeezing the words back into my belly. I realize I am stretching my neck as if inviting him to do this. As if I deserve punishment. (From A Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal.)

…[I] drop to my knees. I know a sharp piece of stone has just ripped through my tembon, my knee is likely bleeding, but I can barely feel it… I lean one arm in front of me and hold my head down. I can feel the sun striking the back of my neck as sweat drips into my clothing. I dry heave… (From the advance reader copy of The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi; this novel will be released on Sept. 2, 2014.)

 

When characters feel something, they act. They do stuff. They move. Their physical bodies reflect the emotions that they feel, and it’s the writer’s job not to name the emotion but to describe the physicality. Showing it rather than telling it invites the reader to feel it.

People often ask where I get my story ideas, and I say ideas are over-rated. I can get totally caught up in ideas—so deep inside my own head, so full of thoughts—that when I try to turn them into a story, my writing quickly becomes idea-heavy, sensory-light and I tell rather than show. I’ve had to learn to let go of ideas and write sensory details, instead.

I’ve learned a bunch of other stuff, too, and on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog you can read the rest of my “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far.” There’s also a giveaway of Brotherhood going on until Feb. 5. (Leave a comment on Chuck’s blog, The Guide to Literary Agents for a chance to win a signed copy.)

Meanwhile, notice the spots in your own writing where you identify emotions by name and think of those as placeholders, waiting for you to return and revise with action and sensory details.

2 responses to “What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means

  1. These are terrific suggestions! Anne once shared with me the tip of keeping paper at my writing desk for jotting down intrusive items so they don’t sidetrack me; it’s a practice I maintain to this day. And even though I was trained early on to “show, don’t tell,” it pays to be reminded of this. I’m going back to my manuscript later to sift out any such sins. Thanks for publishing her list!

  2. Yes, Marci, it does pay to be reminded! I wrote the “7 Things” article for Chuck in December, and he didn’t post it until last week. When I re-read it, I turned to my own manuscript to — as you said — sift out my sins! We all need reminders. It’s just so easy to slip into trite writing. Wish it weren’t, but… well… it is what it is…

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