Show, Don’t Tell

Show, Don’t Tell

by Deb Brammer


“The glory of fiction is that it gives us the effect of being someone else….Anything a writer does that deepens reader involvement strengthens fiction.” (from The Craft of Writing by William Sloane)


Your reader doesn’t want you to tell him a story. He wants you to show him the story. What’s the difference? When you show him the story he feels like he’s right there, watching it happen.


As I said in “Building a Story #2, this is one place where many beginning writers fail. This is one of the most important rules for writing stories. You will find this principle spelled out in most of the writing books you read. 



            Tell: Trevor felt angry and disappointed.

            Show: Trevor slammed his books onto the table. “You always go to Abby’s school program’s. Why can’t you come to even one of my ballgames?”


In the second example the reader feels like he is sitting there watching what Trevor does, hearing what he says. He comes to his own conclusions about how Trevor feels.


E.L. Doctorow says, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”


That’s what you want to do. Show the scene so clearly that the reader feels like he’s sitting there watching it, getting wet or dirty right along with your characters.


 “Writing well means never having to say, ‘I guess you had to be there.’” says Jef Mallet Frazz.


How can you make the reader feel like he was there? Talk, act, think. What are your characters saying? What are they doing? What is your viewpoint character thinking? Avoid big chunks of description. Instead work small bits of description into the action of the story.


For more on “Talk, act, think” read my article, “Building a Story #3, Beginning Construction Scene by Scene.”


Remember to avoid explaining too much. The reader likes to come to his own conclusions. When you over-explain the reader may feel like you are treating him as a child, afraid he didn’t “get it.” If you feed the reader the right actions and dialog and thought of the characters, the reader will get it.