Show, Don't Tell (1)

Show, don't tell. It's one of the basic principles of narrative writing. Let's make sure you understand what it means.

Imagine that you are the director of a movie. Your main character, Albert, is angry. How can you convey this information to your audience? You have two choices:

    1. A narrative voice-over. You show Albert walking down the street. In the background, a voice says: "Albert was angry that day."
    2. You show Albert walking down the street. His cheeks are flushed with anger. He's muttering curses. He kicks a trash can and punches the air. "Damn it!" he says. "I'm going to kill that jerk!"

The first method is telling; the second is showing.

Most movies don't employ voice-overs, so movie directors must get good at showing. They know that the only way to show that a character is sad, or happy, or hot, or cold, or whatever is to show the character doing or saying something that reveals these things. If the camera can't see it, the audience won't have any way of knowing it.

Writers, on the other hand, have a different set of tools, and telling the reader what a character is feeling is one of them. That's a fine and useful tool. But good writers don't rely too heavily on telling, because they know the power of showing—the power of mental images.

Compare the following:

Telling Showing

Jody was cold.

Jody pulled her collar up, tightened her scarf, shoved her hands deep into her pockets, and turned her face away from the biting wind.

Nathaniel was tired.

Nathaniel yawned. His eyes looked puffy and his shoulders slumped.

Rick asked, "Didn't you get any sleep last night? You look shot."

Jeremy was angry.

Jeremy threw his bat, kicked up dust, and yelled at the umpire.

Tasha was scared of the dark.

Tasha checked under the bed, twice, to make sure there weren't any monsters there. Then she asked her mother to leave the light on and leave the door open.

Tim loved Patty.

Tim got up an hour early every morning, so that he could walk three miles to the bus stop where Patty caught the school bus.

John was bored.

John tapped his fingers on the desk and sighed as he looked at his watch.


Instructions for the Quiz

The quiz asks you questions like this:

Which writer does the best job of showing (instead of telling)?

  • Joe was tired.
  • Joe laid his head on the desk, allowing his eyes to close for a moment.


The answer is B.

If these kinds of questions give you trouble, ask yourself:

Can a camera see something called "tired"? No, so the answer can't be A.

Can you film Joe laying his head on the desk? Can you shoot a closeup of his eyes slowly closing? The answer is yes; therefore, the answer is B.