Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 23 Sep 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 22 Sep 2002
Reposted on: Sun, 5 Mar 2006
"Show don't tell" is a basic writing
"rule". Usually, it is more
effective to show something (an emotion, an action), through actions or
direct observations, than simply to tell. This allows the reader to
absorb the information more immediately. Showing allows the reader to
experience the scene first-hand.
There are exceptions, of course. A piece
of information may not be
important enough to warrant any extra effort on the writer's or
part. Or telling can be used to de-emphasize information - I've seen
this done in whodunnits, when the author wanted to play fair and
information essential to figure out the culprit, but wanted to slide it
by the reader's attention.
But in most cases, showing is better than
telling, though often
This week's exercise is intended to explore the difference between
showing and telling.
First, write a short "telling" statement
about something: a
mood, perhaps, or an action. Then, in 300 words or less, write a text
showing us that mood, concept, or action.
For example, I could write: "John was
afraid, knowing the enemy was
closing in on him." Then I would fill in the scene - how did his fear
manifest itself, externally or internally? ("Fear" is the label we put
on a range of reactions, manifested in a range of ways.) How did he
know the enemy was coming? Does he hear sounds, did someone send him a
warning, is he just being paranoid? And of course, as part of showing,
we'd need to pay attention to the setting - is John crouched under
bushes in the forest, knowing a band of men with guns are looking for
him, or is he sitting in an office, afraid lawyers are going to come
through the door with papers?
This does not have to be an action scene,
of course - a routine
or something more abstract, can also be shown rather than told.
When critiquing, please point out how
effectively the text shows the
desired information, and how it might be improved. Was the "showing"
scene more effective, or in some instances was telling more effective?
(It is possible to go overboard in "showing", and lose focus.)
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Thu, 27 Sep 2001
This is a tricky concept, isn't it? I read
the submissions, and
still a lot of telling in the "show" portions of the exercise. A quick
way to check is to look for sentences like "she was " or
felt ". Look for verbs like "seem" or
All of those usually indicate the author is telling rather than
I wish I remembered where I read this, but
someone was discussing
silent movies, everything was showing; even the occasional text thrown
up on the screen did little more than confirm what had already been
The example given was a man proposing. The
film shows him getting on
one knee, offering up a ring, then the words "Will you marry me" appear
- but by the time, the viewers would have figured that out. We would
then see the woman smile, very happy, clasping her hand, nodding
vigourously, followed by the redundant words "Yes, I will!".
So when thinking about "showing", think of
it as a silent movie.
exactly do the actors have to do to convey the scene, when they're not
able to speak? And don't stop at "the woman was obviously happy" - what
makes it obvious that she's happy?
For those who have already submitted,
think of your submission in
way; for those who haven't submitted yet, use this concept as a
Note: next week will be a free-for-all
week, so people wishing to
continue working on Show Vs Tell will be able to do so.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 1 Oct 2001
A good week's work, everyone. I hope the
submissions and critiques
helped all of us learn more about showing versus telling, and how
showing can be more effective.
This is not an easy topic; the natural
tendency is to "tell" the
And of course, some telling is OK - the trick is to look for
opportunities to strengthen the story by doing more showing and less
Why is showing better, in many cases? The
old adage is that "a
is worth a thousand words". The trick is to learn to draw that picture,
in fewer words!
There are two reasons telling can break
down for the reader. One is
that the human brain is better at processing sensory information than
abstract knowledge - that's why we present raw data in pictures
graphs, etc) whenever we can. I'm more likely to understand what I see
(or touch or otherwise experience) than what I'm told.
The other problem with telling is that
it's often not specific
There are many ways to be afraid, but few words to describe them. (At
the very least, the writer should remember to use the best word for the
job: being jittery is definitely not the same same being terrified, or
panicked. Even so, those words in themselves only go so far in letting
the reader know the situation.)
I'm sure we'll come back and explore this
Congratulations to everyone who
participated this week.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 13 Mar 2006
Just a couple of quick comments this week:
- some critiques mentioned that the
"show" version diverged from
the "tell" version. This was true, and normal for an exercise like
this. A proper "showing" scene will typically reveal more than a
- a number of the "showing" scenes
still included a fair bit of
telling. Be careful in particular about telling us directly what a
character is thinking; look out for phrases like "he knew", "she felt",
etc. A key question to ask might be: would someone viewing this scene
from the outside be able to guess the information being provided?
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.