Tell, don’t Show…wait, huh?

serious young woman thinking about something and looking up. studio shot over dark background

One of the most common things I heard as writer moving up in the literary trenches was, “Show, don’t Tell.” It’s a mantra bandied about more than candy at grandma’s house! But…as writers aren’t we telling a story, so why is it so bad to tell that story, why do we need to show it?

The reason is the distance. There is always a slight distance between the reader and the character and our job  is to make that distance seem minimal. We need to make it more alive for the readers and draw them into the story. For example, see the sentence below.

Example One

Joe stood next to the tree and watched the shooter aim his gun at a little girl.

This is a clear if not boring sentence.  The reader gets a sense of where Joe is and the stakes. Gotta feel for the little girl a bit but at the same time, the whole sentence is dry.  Why not instead.

The fading sound of footsteps on asphalt alerted Joe that the gunman moved away from his hiding place. He poked his head out from behind the tree, and oh God, watched the shooter set his sights on a little girl whose toes poked from behind a bush.

This is better (hopefully) in that you get a much clearer sense of where Joe is, what he is doing in this scene, and the stakes involved. This is more a descriptive showing, and overall better sentence.

Example Two

Bartlebee grabbed Delilah’s hand and went down on one knee.

Yay, he is proposing, yet that sentence is pretty cut and dried.  How can we draw people in more.

Bartlebee’s hands sweat and he discretely rubbed them down the sharp seams of his trousers before reaching to take Delilah’s hand.  The touch of her skin emboldened him and he dropped down onto one knee, pulling her to a stop.

This example gives a much clearer idea of what Bartlebee is feeling and also what he is wearing.  It uses more senses and overall is a much stronger sentence.

Another tool to use to avoid telling and not showing is to try to use less common words. Try to enliven the action a bit. Not just saw, but peeped, peeked, glanced, watched, glared, stared, looked askance. At the same time. Don’t be Joey.


Joey funny

And above all realize that you can’t show everything. You can’t avoid all was, to be’s, gerunds.  But each line is important and work to make every sentence as strong as you can make it.

Any examples you would like to show or sentences you are having trouble with or would like help on? Comment below.

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