How to Show, Not Tell: The Complete Writing Guide

How to Show, Not Tell: The Complete Writing Guide

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the girl was scared of the wilderness her heart pounding at every frightening noise but suddenly her fear disappeared she touched the ground and it felt like her new guardian what's wrong with this picture well for one this passage doesn't actually paint much of a picture and it fails to make me feel anything as a reader that's the core problem with writing that relies too much on telling we're told the girl is scared that the noises are frightening and that this place feels like a guardian
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yet there isn't much evidence to back up those claims show don't tell is a phrase you've probably heard often in the writing community author km weiland best captures the distinction showing dramatizes telling summarizes but it can be hard to identify harmful instances of telling in your own writing telling is not inherently bad in fact all novels are a blend of telling and showing you don't always need to show instead of tell if that were the case all stories would be ridiculously long and filled
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with unnecessary descriptions telling is useful for quickly conveying the passage of time or presenting important facts to the reader without belaboring the point take a look at the opening of the children's novel the secret garden by francis hodgson burnett when mary lennox was sent to misselthwaite manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable looking child ever seen it was true too she had a little thin face and a little thin body
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thin light hair and a sour expression her hair was yellow and her face was yellow because she had been born in india and had always been ill in one way or another we're told some information about mary being a disagreeable looking child who's always been ill but that statement is immediately supported by the visual proof of her thin face and hair along with her sour expression if someone flags your writing for too much telling that likely means you need to provide details or a strong narrative voice
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to make the reader feel something good writing invites the reader to visualize the scene and experience the emotions themselves rather than being told how to feel in his ted talk the clues to a great story pixar writer and director andrew stanton proposes the unifying theory of two plus two he says make the audience put things together don't give them four give them two plus two the opening of relies entirely on showing the audience the equation without giving them the answer
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and he describes why that approach is effective storytelling without dialogue it's the purest form of cinematic storytelling it's the most inclusive approach you can take it confirms something i i really had a hunch on is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal they just don't want to know that they're doing that that's your job as a storyteller is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal we're born problem solvers we're compelled to deduce
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and to deduct because that's what we do in real life it's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in there's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy it's not just that they're damn cute it's because they can't completely express what they're thinking and what their intentions are and it's like a magnet we can't stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in the same principle is true for other non-visual modes of storytelling the key to making your audience care in
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fiction is to imply your meaning rather than always pointing it out readers love the process of discovery and solving puzzles before we dive into some practical strategies i want to take a two minute detour to explore the origins of show don't tell as a writing mantra since it's not often discussed in his 2004 book creative writing in the new humanities scholar paul dawson describes how the novel transformed across the 19th and 20th centuries with the rise of realism
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as a literary movement realism aims to tell the stories of ordinary people with complete honesty rather than romanticizing them dawson notes from flow bear onwards the trajectory of the novel is often regarded as the development of techniques to impersonalize the narrator in order to efface the presence of the implied author and dramatize as much of the action as possible literary critic percy lubbick praised those 19th century realist for giving the novel a defined aesthetic and it's his 1921 book the craft of fiction that
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likely popularized the idea of showing versus telling he says the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown to be so exhibited that it will tell itself authors like virginia woolf both praised and criticized lubbock for confining the novel writing craft to a formal system his ideas were incredibly influential in the literary world basically the intention of this advice is to turn the author into an invisible narrator and avoid breaking the reader's
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immersion and the story janice hardy makes a similar observation and her 2016 writing guide understanding show don't tell a common rule of thumb as long as it feels like the character is thinking it you're usually okay but as soon as it sounds like the author butting in to explain things you've probably fallen into telling if you want readers to experience the story's emotions on a gut level you've got to know when to show generally speaking moments involving emotions opinions or sensations are best shown
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rather than told here are six guiding principles for stronger showing number one use evidence to support your claims if a narrator says her husband is a kind-hearted person or the protagonist believes his best friend is guilty of murder what led them to that conclusion give the reader the same evidence the character uses when it comes to assumptions or opinions author chuck pumpernickel advises a ban on thought verbs like thinks knows understands realizes believes
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wants remembers and imagines he talks about unpacking scenes so that the reader feels and thinks what the characters are feeling and thinking he gives this example instead of saying adam knew gwen liked him you'll have to say between classes gwen was always leaned on his locker when he'd go to open it she'd drill her eyes and shove off of one foot leaving a black heel mark on the painted metal but she also loved the smell of her perfume the combination lock would still be warm from her ass and the next break
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gwyn would be lean there again paulinik adds instead of characters knowing anything you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them instead of a character wanting something you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it you can pull readers into the story by presenting evidence whether that's a visual detail or a piece of dialogue and letting them come to their own conclusions about the impression you're trying to create number two replace the abstract with the
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concrete in particular be careful about directly stating a character's feelings the blog novel writing helped by harvey chapman gives a great before and after example telling after his first kiss with samantha toby walked home feeling happier than he'd ever felt in all his 13 years showing after his first kiss with samantha toby couldn't keep the goofy grin off his face all the way home when he came to the front gate he jumped clean over it didn't come close to tripping chapman further explains why the changes
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work happiness is an abstract concept and needs to be demonstrated shown not told with concrete details like the wide grin and the gate jumping so you can often replace emotions with actions that allow the reader to infer the emotion also be wary of descriptions that use opinion related adjectives like beautiful or strange in a first draft i might write the dark forest felt eerie okay maybe it feels eerie to the character but the reader needs to feel it too i need to convince the reader that it's
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eerie using evidence the forest hummed with the cries of children long dead that's better sufficiently eerie replace adjective labels with details that allow the reader to interpret the atmosphere on their own a trick for identifying when you're in abstract territory is to ask a question that jeff gerk poses in his book the first 50 pages can the camera see it almost all examples of showing contain a detail that can be visualized although you'll often want to combine those visuals with smell touch taste and sound
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author jerry jenkins provides great examples of replacing abstract emotions with concrete actions on his blog cold don't tell me show me your character pulls her collar up tightens her scarf shoves her hands deep into her pockets turns her face away from the biting wind tired he can yawn groan stretch his eyes can look puffy his shoulders could slump another character might say didn't you sleep last night you look shot another way of thinking about this camera idea is to consider the effect
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and not the cause of a particular detail take a look at these additional examples from jerry jenkins telling the temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun showing bill's nose burned in the frigid air and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street telling susie was blind showing susie felt for the bench with a white cane telling it was late fall showing leaves crunched beneath his feet in the first example the cold temperature is the cause of specific effects on the character
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namely bill's nose burning in the frigid air instead of being stated outright the details are instead shown through how the character interacts with the world around them like leaves crunching beneath their feet which makes the scene more visual number three substitute vague descriptions with specific sensory details above all showing relies on specificity unique sensory details make feelings and scenes jump off the page author delilah dawson talks about invoking the senses to make the world building feel three-dimensional
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in her first draft of a sentence she writes ago walked through the market gaping at the rugs and bends of spices now she could have said agga marveled at all the market's wondrous sites but instead of using abstract concepts like marvelled or wondrous she includes the concrete action of aga gaping at the rugs and bins of spices but even though that creates a mental image it's not very specific and it doesn't invoke any senses beyond sight in her second draft dawson writes
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ago walked through the market as if through a dream spicy cinnamon and rich coffee rode the air as she ran her fingers down silken tassels and threw powdery barrels of golden saffron adding details makes this description feel much more immersive and it's unique to this particular story when showing details try to go beyond the obvious and expected for instance a funeral scene will often show everyone wearing black as it begins to rain the main character standing with an umbrella in front of her mother's grave
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what if you showed details that contrasted with the somber atmosphere if an emotional scene feels too cliche try changing the setting or the way the characters describe their emotions as author gail carson levine recommends what if instead of an ordinary day it's christmas day in southern texas begone drizzle hello dry air what if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn't make sense to anyone but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone maybe the friend asks the main character
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what it means maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying the emotional scene is no longer cheesy because it's different number four avoid relying too much on body language a lot of writing advice suggests using body language to imply a character's emotions crushed arms might show that someone is pissed off whereas tapping fingers can indicate impatience those physical details can make for a good emotional shorthand however it's easy to over rely on body language as a form of showing
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in real life how often do you see someone clench their fist or grit their teeth when they're angry how often have you done that yourself when you're angry common facial expressions and gestures are great for quickly conveying a character's mood but they rarely evoke an emotional response from the reader in an article on cs likens blog live write thrive editor robin patchen describes how writers can show emotions through actions and thoughts rather than bodily sensations alone as she says having a character clenching
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his fist might show us he's angry but it doesn't show us the impetus for that anger is he feeling frustrated slighted or jealous she gives an amazing before and after example the first version relies heavily on body language mary opened her eyes and looked at the clock her heart nearly leapt out of her chest the baby had slept nearly eight hours but little jane never slept more than four hours at a time something must be wrong not again her stomach rolled over when she remembered the last time a child of hers had slept
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too long at first glance it seems like the story is showing the character's emotions because her heart and stomach are reacting but that same lack of subtlety makes the descriptions feel forced and melodramatic patchin's second version of the scene moves away from visceral reactions and focuses on the character's individual thought process mary opened her eyes and squinted in the sunshine streaming in through the open window she stretched feeling more relaxed than she had since she sat up and looked at the clock it
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was after eight little jane had slept through the night for the first time just like billy mary flipped the covers back and stood she snatched her robe from the back of the chair and slipped it on she wouldn't think about billy the doctor said it wouldn't happen again the odds against it were astronomical billy had been nearly six weeks old chain was almost two months it was different this time it had to be the second example feels more in the moment giving a real-time account of the character's thought process and their interactions with the setting can show emotional
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nuance better than body language patchin also uses strong verbs like flipped and snatched to convey a sense of panic and urgency along with the ellipsis that indicates her thoughts trailing off word choice and sentence structure can be a form of showing robin patchin ends with this beautiful nugget of wisdom counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to actions as a writer you can easily show your character's thoughts and actions readers are smart enough to deduce the emotions based on what the characters
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think and do so often it seems writers are in a hurry when you have a very emotional scene slow it down let us hear your character's every thought highlight a few details show the actions if you need help brainstorming how feelings might manifest check out the emotion thesaurus by angela ackermann and becca puglisi which lists a variety of ways you can convey different emotions from anguish to wanderlust number five show emotion through dialogue dialogue is a powerful tool for
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proving a character's feelings or personality to the reader instead of saying mary was angry at bob you could have mary shout out bob you wretched picklemonger how dare you this is also the reason many writing advice articles warn against using adverbs they weaken the dialogue because they tell rather than show in the above dialogue we can tell mary's tone from her words alone not to mention the volume given she's shouting i don't need to write shouted angrily because the word angerly is telling the reader information we've already shown
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similarly some writers feel tempted to telegraph a character's intentions in a conversation even though the dialogue already shows that information he tried to be diplomatic please just listen to what i have to say well that doesn't matter she said changing the subject let's move on to something else in this exchange the author is telling the reader what conclusions to make when they should trust that their readers are smart enough to figure it out on their own a revised version might include more visuals and a dialogue tag that conveys a specific tone he pinched the
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bridge of his nose please just listen to what i have to say well that doesn't matter she whispered let's move on to something else when writing highly emotional dialogue it might be helpful in the first draft to pretend you're writing a play or screenplay since that forces you to focus on conveying emotion through dialogue alone oscar wilde is known for his snappy dialogue particularly in his play the importance of being earnest in the opening scene a young gentleman named algernon visits with his best friend jack who has come to propose to
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algernon's cousin the dialogue carries the emotions of the scene behaviors of your marriage already you are not married to her already and i don't think you ever will be why not you say that well in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with girls don't think it right is nonsense it isn't it's a great truth it accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that can see all over the place in the second place i don't give my consent your consent my dear fellow gwendolyn is my first cousin based on the tone of their words alone
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the reader can assume what the characters are feeling even though the audience isn't told that information directly you can learn more about writing subtext and dialogue in my video on the subject number six filter observations through narrative voice show don't tell often means going deeper into the narrative point of view whether you're filtering the story through the lens of one character or a more distant narrator it's about giving details that allow the reader to feel more connected to the point of view character through what they're experiencing this closeness can be achieved through
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phrasing straightforward statements in a unique way reddit user chevron sevenlock shares some great examples of telling versus showing on the r writing subreddit he was a rude and inconsiderate man this is telling we know the character is rude and considerate because the writer told us out of my way jerk he yelled at the woman struggling to lift her stroller onto the bus this is showing we can deduce that the character is rude and and consider it based on the situation we just read telling she was uncomfortable around him
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showing she stiffened in his embrace telling the house was huge showing his whole family could live in the kitchen alone telling she was hungry showing she near inhaled the soup in all of these examples we learned the same information through showing but with more flavor and character you'll notice that all these examples involve replacing was with a more interesting verb just as in earlier examples since wuz and its cousin word felt are
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often followed by an adjective that can be a flag marking a spot where a stronger verb could be used to create that concrete image in the reader's head you can picture a woman stiffening in a man's embrace or a kitchen large enough for a family to live in where someone inhaling soup this extends to world building backstory and infodumps in general sometimes authors present information like a dictionary definition rather than an in-world reference that fits naturally into the story as janice hardy notes an easy test for infodumps is to check if the information is for
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the reader's benefit or the character's benefit if it's for the reader chances are you're dumping and it contains told pros the key is to filter the world building or exposition through the point of view character's perspective hearty compares different ways of showing the same scene based on the character the bland example with bob the rain poured down the window of the restaurant bob sat at the table a stack of pancakes beside him he stared at an envelope in his hands while above him on the wall a clock ticked
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a navy seal character the rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an uzi bob sat at the table back against the wall a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him he gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him new orders great a scared girl rain covered the window and blurred the outside world bobby slouched at the table her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her the envelope lay in her lap she didn't want to touch it let alone open it she glanced at the clock inside running
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out of time let your characters emotions color the way they see their surroundings the same goes for dialogue that feels like information given for the reader's sake rather than something the character would realistically say this leads to as you know bob situations where one character explains something that another character already knows no now you know how today we're heading into the land of the giants to offer them the jew valencia in exchange for joining our quest to save princess isabella yes we discussed it last night in great detail has no need for your clunky exposition
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in these situations the dialogue isn't phrased in the character's voice it's the author talking instead which pulls the reader out of the story remember that characters have prior knowledge and experience that exist outside of the narrative showing in dialogue often means including less detail as in this example from janus hardy readers benefit i'll bring up a small explosive device to blow up in the door that's the way we did it when i was deployed in afghanistan as a navy seal characters benefit kevin where'd you learn to make bombs
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the navy the true purpose behind the advice show don't tell is not to assert that all telling is bad writing telling is often necessary to bridge different scenes and the amount of telling you use can depend on the genre which stewie writes captures so succinctly telling and showing are tools to control pacing they help you focus and immerse the reader in important moments and speed past others what do you want the reader to remember identify what your ideal reader wants do they want a lush immersive meandering journey or a lightspeed thriller
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and as author alexey harrow puts it sometimes readers want to be told what's happening as if we're listening to an oral storyteller spin a good yarn she writes i want a strong narrative voice to come sweeping across the stage in a grand monologue that explains the whole world to me like i'm five i want the patronizing clarity of a fairy tale or a myth which strings together a story with a series of and then and untils i want a flat southern voice leaning close and saying so what happened
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was harrow specifically champions mikaya johnson sci-fi debut the space between worlds as an example of a work that turns exposition into something searing and compelling with narrative tension the opening pages use a strong first-person voice to pull the reader in when i was young and multiverse was just a theory i was worthless the brown girl child of an addict in one of those wards outside the walls of wiley city that people don't get out of or go to
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but then adam bosh our new einstein and the founder of the institute that pays me discovered a way to see into other universes of course humanity couldn't just look we had to enter we had to touch and taste and take but the universe said no telling is part of what differentiates novels and short stories from movies and tv shows fiction writers can bottle thoughts and feelings in a way that can't be fully replicated in another medium
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showing is meant to push writers to try harder with their prose and brainstorm specific details that bring the characters and a world to life that being said the phrase should be amended to show don't just tell as a quick cheat sheet here are some places where you might consider telling or blend telling and showing moments are important to the larger narrative like how a character got from point a to point b summaries of routines time passing or repetitive conversations some aspects of magic systems or sci-fi
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world building as in the space between worlds excerpt character thoughts occasional backstory and exposition this is usually presented as a broad sweep that tells paired with specific details that show like in the secret garden example and here are places where you're usually better off showing emotions particularly the characters feelings and assumptions about how other characters are feeling sensations this includes sight sound smell taste and touch thoughts words like realize thought and new might signify this but don't feel like you need to avoid
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those words entirely just make sure there's not a more interesting way you could phrase it using concrete evidence attributes or opinion-related adjectives especially in relation to how a character place or situation makes the protagonist feel if you make a claim like he was smart back it up with evidence such as mentioning the time he macgyvered a key from dental floss and a spatula flat phrasing this might include overused wording or an abundance of to be verbs like was showing means eliminating the author as the middleman and letting the reader
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live the story hand you can show through specificity action dialogue sensory details internal thought and narrative voice your first draft will often contain more telling than showing during your visions you can go through and highlight parts that need more flavor look for spots where emotions or descriptions feel vague replace those with specific sensory details and vivid vocabulary if you want to learn more about telling versus showing i highly recommend picking up janice hardy's understanding show don't tell it's a short read that's jam-packed
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with practical strategies for finding red flags with telling as a writing exercise find a short paragraph or scene from one of your favorite books replace all the showing with telling remember the passage i shared at the beginning of this video that's actually from a popular novel except i rewrote it badly here's the original text which is an admirable example of showing a character's emotions through her actions and a unique narrative voice it's from where the crawdad sing by delilah owens sometimes
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she heard night sounds she didn't know or jumped from lightning too close but whenever she stumbled it was the land that caught her until at last at some unclaimed moment the heart pain seeped away like water into sand still there but deep kaya laid her hand upon the breathing wet earth and the marsh became her mother do you struggle to show instead of tell
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share your thoughts with me in the comments whatever you do keep writing [Music]

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