Writing Techniques: Part V – Show and tell

January 17, 2009 in On Writing by pacejmiller

Don’t tell, show

show-and-tellMost writers are taught that it is best to “show” and not “tell” when writing – that is, instead of telling the reader what emotion a character is feeling, you should show them.  Apparently, this is because readers prefer to use their brains – they prefer to deduce things from mental images rather than be told everything.

As Hemingway said:

“Let action speak for itself, without telling readers how to respond, what to feel, how to judge.  Let images convey meaning.  If action is portrayed truly and precisely, using only its essential elements, then readers, without being told how, will respond emotionally as the writer intednded.”

So for example, instead of saying Tom was nervous, have him sweat and chew his pen and tap his feet.

How to show

The way to show emotion in your writing is through detail.  Not just any detail or detail for the sake of being detailed (that would just bore readers to death) – but choose specific images that convey specific emotions and only report on the things that matter.

Here is a link to a great article which explains exactly how to show and not tell, and provides some useful examples and exercises to help you along the way.

For some people this comes naturally.  I am far from good at doing this, especially when I’m just trying to write freely to get words on the page.  Often when I try to be detailed, I either find myself stopping because I can’t find the right word, or I find my descriptions too average, to lifeless, or worse, too try-hard.

The most welcoming thing I’ve read today is from this writer, who suggests that it might not be such a bad thing to tell rather than show when working on your first draft, especially if you find that it causes you to lose sight of the big picture when stopping to work on your descriptions.

Thanks for making me feel less like a retard.