What Do You Mean “Show, Don’t Tell”?

In one of my classes this semester we talked about the idea of “show, don’t tell,” and a lot of my classmates voiced their hate for this rule. I don’t necessarily have an opinion one way or the other, but I do believe that there is a time and a place for either “showing” or “telling.” This rule of “show, don’t tell” is significant to ponder as a writer. Some writing asks us to show, and other times it wants us to tell. But how do we know the difference? And why should we care?

“Showing” in writing is essentially providing your reader with a “show” through displaying gestures, nervous ticks, movements, or non-verbal cues.

In contrast, “telling” is giving the reader a specific explanation of what you want them to see or understand. “Telling” is much more direct and can be used to speed up time as well.

So how do you know when to “show” or “tell”?

Show emotions. Tell feelings.

I’ve heard professors say this, I’ve seen it on Pinterest, and other writers have told me similar things. At first, this didn’t make sense to me. However, since spending more time with my writing, it finally makes sense.

Emotions are meant to be felt deeply, both in the mind and in the body. So, to write emotion you need to write the body into the story. The reader is already mentally present in the world through your writing, so now you have to make sure that the reader is physically present in the story as well. Providing physical gestures, descriptions, and movements is the way to do that; this will give your reader a location to enter into the story.

Feelings, however, are already physical. The reader is mentally present and by the nature of physically feeling something, the reader is also physically present. Providing in-depth explanations of cuts, fights, clothing, and other things, only bores the reader since they often already know what it feels like to be in pain or touch soft fabric.

To demonstrate these differences, I have some examples:

A single tear trailed down his cheek and settled in the crevice of his pursed lips. ~VS~ He cried.

It is clear from the first example that the character is in emotional pain, possibly anger and sorrow. The physical description in the first part writes the reader into the action by forcing them to watch the tears fall and notice the way the character’s features change with his emotions. Also, the reader’s exposure to this vulnerable state provides them an opportunity to feel empathetic towards the character.

In contrast, the second version is simple and leaves the reader unsure of what kind of “crying” is happening. Is the character sad? Angry? Lamenting? In anguish? Inconsolable? The lack of information in the second version leaves the reader unsure, blocked off, and shoved out of the story.

The blood gushed from the cut and seeped into her clothing, staining it red and brown. ~VS~ She was severely injured.

In this example, the second version is better for several reasons. First of all, pain a generally universal feeling and can be felt by the simple mention of a cut or gash. Additionally, the reader doesn’t need to hear about the details of the gushing blood and the wound—they already know that there is blood and gore if there’s an injury. Lastly, if this scene is high intensity (which usually an action scene or an injury scene is), then you can’t waste time! By pulling the reader out of the intensity and action with describing the details of an injury, you’ve removed the tension of the scene.

To summarize, the “show, don’t tell” rule is dumb if you already understand when to show and when to tell. Generally speaking, “showing” can be more evocative for your reader, but that doesn’t mean it should be used all the time. Like anything, there is a time and place for “showing” or “telling” in your writing.

Hope this is helpful! Happy writing!

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