Show to Tell

We’ve all heard the writing principle, “Show, don’t tell.” By avoiding endless descriptions and summarizations (aka, “expositing”), we allow readers to experience our stories through characters’ emotions, words, thoughts and senses. Since we’re story tellers, though, I think a better aim involves showing to tell.

Here. I’ll show you an example… 😉

1. He was stoked.

2. Excitement accompanied his calm, like falling in love with the right person.

(Pretty obvious which is more interesting, right?)

We should also stay mindful of what our ‘real life’ actions convey. If we tell others we’re writers, best we write…not just talk about it. Saying we won’t give up while prioritizing everything but our work displays a similar message.

A couple of years ago one of my nutrition clients—we’ll call her Kay—asked if I’d counsel her sixteen-year-old daughter, BB, who was showing signs of an eating disorder. “I don’t know why she’s dieting,” Kay said. “I’ve told her how unhealthy it is.” Already, I sensed a major part of the problem. I’d been helping Kay rid her life of her dieting ways. Seldom do such habits not leave ample residue.

Meeting with the BB confirmed it. Even if Kay never said a lick about weight loss, her “flabby” thighs or calories in/calories out, BB would have adopted similar attitudes and habits. She’d witnessed her mother’s lack of self care for too long. Although words are powerful, experiences like this provide lasting, difficult-to-undo impressions.

In response to BB’s experience and others like it, I produced this PSA—another way of showing. 😉

Some pointers for showing-to-tell in fiction:

Use more dialogue. This invites the reader to participate in the scene in present tense, as though they’re really there.

Let the film play. Close your eyes and imagine the scene you’re working on play out like a movie. Observe the sights, sounds and colors. Cast yourself as the main character. Note his or her thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

Use your senses. Describe—without getting too crazy—sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations and tastes.

Let it happen. Forcing a bunch of illustrious words into your sentences isn’t cool or artsy; it’s annoying. As is looking up adjectives in a thesaurus then using the smartest-sounding option. Let the story flow without judgement, allowing your imagination and feelings to take the driver’s seat. (Save criticism for revisions.)

Don’t overdo it. Thriller novelist James Scott Bell said, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”

Have you experienced showing/telling triumphs or challenges in your own life. In your writing? What are your attitudes and actions “showing” the world?

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  1. Great post! As a mother of three daughters I really try to teach/show them that beauty comes from the inside. I worry about body image etc and balance we have in our lives. Try to eat healthy, exercise etc. but not over do it or obsess. I love how you linked this to our writing. So much better to show then tell:)

  2. Oh my goodness – I struggle with this all the time. I get really wrapped up in “telling” my story. I’m constantly having to re-do stuff because the first time around I’m really absorbed in telling it like I see it.

    Those are all very helpful suggestions to be reminded of every once in a while.

    Another great post, August.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Perpetual re-doing is the name of the game, right?? 😉 Sometimes, I feel, we use our first draft to tell ourselves the story…and the second to show it to the reader.

      Thanks, Patricia!

  3. I really like this concept, August. Nicely done.

  4. I like that, “showing TO tell.” Nicely put. I might steal that 😉

    When I read my friends and readers’ work, this is the number one problem I see. Too much telling, too much explaining of boring backstory, not enough showing to tell the story. Thanks August.

  5. Good points, here! My husband and I are both slightly overweight, and have been really focusing on eating more healthy and being more active. Our 16yo daughter has noticed too – last week she started trying to be more conscious of eating more healthfully (rather than just eating less) which will hopefully be a habit she keeps for life.

    • Good for you, Jennette! Making healthy eating fun for the whole family is definitely the way to go. Eating mindfully—slowly, without distraction and with awareness of tastes, textures and emotions—also helps…whether the food is nutritious or not. Stay well. 🙂

  6. Good post! I’ve thrown an interesting, one dimensional character into a scene so his dialogue tells the narrative. The added bonus with this method is it create conflict, specifically tension, in which the narrative couldn’t accomplish alone.

  7. What a great example of tell and show you have with your video! And your response to Patricia: “Perpetual re-doing is the name of the game, right?? Sometimes, I feel, we use our first draft to tell ourselves the story…and the second to show it to the reader” absolutely dead on!

  8. Thank you for this river of wisdom and knowledge…Very, Very true and helpful information.
    Bless You


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