It is the writer Chekhov who has been attributed as first explaining this technique (show, don’t tell) and in a letter to his brother he wrote:
“In descriptions of nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
When you show, you are describing specific details that allow the reader to paint a picture in their mind. As opposed to when you tell and this only provides the reader with a fact.
This technique engages the reader and in describing specific emotions, human senses and events, they experience what is happening in the writing.
The best way I’ve found to make this a habit is to think ‘paint, don’t tell’?
This is a similar saying, but it provides a stronger action for the mind to grasp when you are thinking about how best to write fiction.
- So a boy is walking down the street, but what is he feeling or thinking?
- The simple story or fact is to tell the reader what he is doing, but the story within that is a whole world of emotions, details, and evocation. A world that can be missed out if you only tell and don’t paint the scene to the reader.
So now, I always write with this in consideration and if I think the sentence is lacking depth, I consider – ‘paint, don’t tell.’
Example: The first sentence below tells the reader he got scared, but what’s the story within that line?
- He got scared.
- His stomach churned and his chest felt so tense he can barely breathe.
It is the second sentence that paints a picture of what the character is feeling and it is such details that will engage the interest of the reader.
Show, don’t tell examples
With the addition of a few simple details, such as by adding senses, feelings or thoughts, you can greatly develop a sentence. Thus giving it the depth that is required to draw in the reader and to clearly express yourself.
I started below by randomly writing a simple sentence and then by giving it a little thought I developed it and wrote the second sentence.
- The boy walked down the street towards his grandmother’s house.
- The boy, dragging his feet along the pavement, approached his grandmother’s house with sweaty palms and trepidation, for the fear of kisses and ruffled hair was increasing with each step.
The crux of it is that you are describing feelings, thoughts or events, and you are not just telling the reader.
By ‘showing’ there are a couple of factors that come into play. The first that there is more detail in the writing and the second that the sentences engage with the reader on a human level.
This, human level, means that you draw them into your story by articulating thoughts on the page. This paints a picture that they can see in their mind.
Below is another example with the first sentence that tells and doesn’t show, and the second sentence that, shows and doesn’t tell.
- The cat sat on a wall next to a strange garden and stared into the air.
- A metallic whiff caught the cats nose, but it did not cast an eye over the array of mechanical contraptions, broken and rusting that were sprawled on the lawn. Instead, the cat gazed into the air and enjoyed the cool breeze.
It is important to note you should not include detail that isn’t required. The detail in the second sentence will relate to how the story unfolds around a cat that has no curiosity, in this instance, for a specific reason. Hence the detail is to the point and good to include.
One Final Point
Writers can and will just tell the reader a detail.
It is not an absolute rule to always show, as opposed to telling, and balancing out how your sentences are written is key to using both show and tell effectively.
For example, you may wish to just tell the reader an action to keep the scene pacing moving quickly and this is perfectly acceptable.
It would be great to hear your own practice sentences in relation to this topic. Please post them in the comments section if wish or if you have any comments or suggestions please do say.