The Show Don't Tell Rule

A World without Words

Photo by Cristian V.

We all know it's one of the biggest rules in writing. We hear it over and over again. "Show don't tell, show don't tell." Like an annoying parrot squawking in our ear. However, despite this rule being ingrained on our very psyche, many of us still fall victim to a whole lot of telling. And even though we can't possibly show every single thing, we should aim to spend most of our story showing. Otherwise, we'll distance our reader from the action and they'll just feel like they're hearing a story secondhand instead of experiencing it themselves.

Here are some tips (source) to help catch those sneaky telling moments.

Please forgive me in advance for my not so genius examples, it's early. I went to the Pink concert last nightand am feeling a little fuzzy. :)

1. Unearth those -ly adverbs.

TELL: "I can't believe he's gone," she said sadly. (How do you know she's sad? You're telling us.)
SHOW: "I can't believe he's gone." Her eyes filled with tears.

2. Beware the "to be" verbs. am/is/was/could be/would have been/etc.

TELL: The room was creepy and she was scared.
SHOW: A chill stole across her skin as the oppressive darkness pressed against her. The floorboard creaked beneath her feet, and a small yelp escaped her lips.

3. Hunt down the words Look, Feel, Know (and others I'm probably forgetting.)

TELL: He looked angry. He felt angry. She knew he was angry. *yawn*
SHOW: His face turned an unbecoming shade of purple, and he slammed the phone against the wall.

A few other tips that help with showing....

--Paint a picture, be specific.

Don't just have your hero eat cereal. Tell us what kind. A person who eats Count Chocula is very different from someone who eats Shredded Wheat. This helps you show us something about him

--Use all five senses in your writing, don't rely on sight and sound only.

Romance novels are very good at this one since the reaction to the hero/heroine is usually experienced on every level.

--Use dialogue to "show".

Don't say he's cocky. Show him saying cocky things. I ♥ dialogue. It's one of my favorite ways to show.

--Don't recount a past event if you can show them.

This can be a simple thing. Like, don't say your character had a fight with their boss earlier in the day. Let us see the fight or at least her storming out of the office. This can also help with backstory. Flashback scenes can be dodgy, but if used correctly, can be a good way to show a dramatic moment instead of having a character recount it.

--Pretend you are a directing a movie

Movies can't tell you anything. They have to show it all. Watch movies to see what they use to show the characters personality, emotion, backstory, etc.

--And know that you can't and shouldn't show everything.

Some scenes are uninteresting and don't need a play by play, just a quick summary to get us to the next important scene.

Alright, hope that helps. It definitely helps me.