Show, Don’t Tell

2014 Artwork Show, Don't Tell Sketch

If you’ve had any formal writing lessons or have even just read a book or two about writing, then you’ll probably be very familiar with the “show, don’t tell” rule already.

But, if you haven’t, then I thought that I’d explain one of the most basic and widely-known rules of writing fiction to you.

All that “show, don’t tell” really means is that, when you want to present some information to your readers, you should do this through hints, actions, visual descriptions and implications rather than just telling them directly.

“Show, don’t tell” isn’t an absolute rule and it applies slightly less to stories written from a first-person perspective than it does to stories written from a third-person perspective, but it is a rule that you should try to follow as often as you can.

Long explanations and non-visual descriptions can break up the flow of your story and they can be boring for your readers too. Not only that, too much “telling” can also make your story sound more like a non-fiction essay than a story.

For example, here’s a description of an old house with lots of boring “telling” in it: “I walked up to the original Victorian wrought-iron gates of Winterby Manor. It was a large manor house with extensive grounds that had been built in the nineteenth century and had been owned and occupied by the Winterby family ever since. The owners had renovated some parts of it and added a conservatory sometime in the eighties. Nevertheless, the house had fallen into a serious state of disrepair over the years.”

Pretty dull, right?

Now let’s look at a description of the same house with a lot more “showing” in it: “I stood in front of the rusty gates and looked over the gardens at the gaunt house in the distance. A faded white conservatory stood out against the cracked grey walls and there was a large green Land Rover parked near the front door. As I creaked the gates open, I noticed a flaking sign beside them which said ‘W nt rby Man r’. Winterby Manor. Obviously, I was in the right place.”

This sounds a lot more like something you would read in a novel, doesn’t it?

Both of these descriptions pass on the same information to the reader, but the second one shows you that it is an old house from the descriptions of the rusty and creaking gates, cracked walls and flaking signs. It shows you that there has been a conservatory added to the house, but it isn’t a new conservatory because it is faded. Plus, it shows you that the house has very large gardens because the narrator can only see the house in the distance.

If you’re still not sure how to do this, then think of your story as if it was a film. In a film, the director has to get a lot of information across to the audience through purely visual details such as the way that characters look and act, the way that the locations are designed etc…

If you were watching a film which stopped every two minutes to explain things and to spell out every small detail to you, then you would probably get very bored very fast. Well, the same is true for prose fiction too.

If you still need any more help with doing this, then read some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Although these stories are pretty old, they provide lots of brilliant examples of the differences between showing and telling.

For example, here’s part of ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’ where Watson (the narrator and Holmes’ companion) “shows” us an old stick which someone has left in their rooms at 221b Baker Street: “I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.”

After examining the stick and working out that it belongs to a doctor, Sherlock Holmes then goes on to “tell” Watson (and the readers) about the doctor who owns the stick: “Now, you will observe that he could not have been on the staff of the hospital, since only a man well-established in a London practice could hold such a position, and such a one would not drift into the country. What was he, then? If he was in the hospital and yet not on the staff he could only have been a house-surgeon or a house-physician—little more than a senior student. And he left five years ago—the date is on the stick. So your grave, middle-aged family practitioner vanishes into thin air, my dear Watson, and there emerges a young fellow under thirty, amiable, unambitious, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog, which I should describe roughly as being larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff.”

Usually, Sherlock Holmes will be shown something and then will tell the reader about it. When you’re writing, you have to do the opposite. But, remember, you need to show things in a way which doesn’t require your readers to be an expert detective like Sherlock Holmes in order to understand them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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One comment on “Show, Don’t Tell

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