Show, Don't Tell Works Best in the Classroom

Anyone who has spent time in a creative writing class, in writers groups, or reading about the art of writing has heard the advice "show, don't tell" bandied about. What does this really mean?

Typically, it means, don't tell us the character is a liar, show us the character is a liar by having him lie to his spouse about something important. Don't just tell us that the car is really fast or the wall is really high, show us how fast or how high.

  • "The car blasted down the highway from 0 to 75 in just eight seconds."
  • "From the top of the castle wall, the foot soldiers below looked like small dots moving about."

This is all well and good, if you're describing objects, but it gets dicey when it comes to character descriptions, backstory of a person or place, or getting your character from point A to point B without putting your reader to sleep.

My rules when it comes to "Show, Don't Tell"

  1. Keep the "showing" to a minimum when you're describing general character traits like eye color, hair color, height, weight, etc. Saying things like "her eyes shone like sky-blue pools" or "his weight rivaled an orca whale" start to look amateurish and silly pretty quickly.
  2. With backstory, I like to offer no more than 3-4 sentences at a time and then show how that backstory might affect the character (for character backstory) or characters (for place backstory).
  3. When it comes to your character traveling from one place to the next, I only show each leg of the journey if some important event takes place along the way. Otherwise, I cut to the chase. Literally. "John arrived at his mother's house just 20 minutes after he left campus."

So, if you find your word count rising, because you've put as much "show" in as you can manage, try taking a step back from your work. Look hard at the "showing" you've done, and ask yourself if you can do the job just as well with some "telling". You might find you have a much more interesting piece with a little more telling and a little less showing.

Do you feel like you need some 1-on-1 help with your showing and telling? I can help with that.


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The Taming by A.M. Rycroft

The Taming

by A.M. Rycroft

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