Show not tell – take 10,000

The first tip an editor will proffer a wet-behind-the-ears author is: SHOW DON’T TELL. Just Google the phrase to see the number of hits returned. There is even a YouTube video of Stephen King placing this nugget as his number one advice to aspirant authors.

Here’s an example from a thriller I’m currently writing.


‘No, alright, fine.’  Majid felt more relaxed.  ‘Fine.  Let’s talk then.’

Revised draft, show:

‘No, alright, fine.’  Majid slackened his shoulders and eased into his seat.  ‘Fine.  Let’s talk then.’

The revised sentence is stronger. It draws the reader into feeling the scene as if he were experiencing it himself. This is augmented by the element of ambiguity – the exact uncertainty and dilemma that the character would be experiencing.

Telling is less interesting and represents dry narration. It is often used to move the plot forward from A to B where the details are insignificant and narrating them would bog down the progression of the plot.

Returning to my example, the reader can discern from Majid’s actions that he probably felt relaxed without being told so. In fact, I’d argue there are two techniques at play here. Firstly the showing – the describing his actions – rather than stating the result – and secondly, the actions I selected to describe, coupled with the mots justes. Slackened and ease are strong words that inherently imply a state of relaxation.

With experience showing becomes second nature. You’re on your path to becoming a good story teller if you can show rather than tell.

But you’ll not be a great one until you learn when to tell and not show. Sounds oxymoronic doesn’t it?

Perish the thought!

There are times when overly showing will result in emotional exhaustion or sensory overload. There are times when the details are not important and delving into them becomes an anchor weight, slowing down the plot, if not grinding it to a halt. The result can be an abandoned book. Sometimes you need to cover ground quickly to move onto the next scene.

An example of (what I consider) necessary use of telling is the conclusion to my chapter 1:

He pushed the plane to out of its comfort zone exceeding the cruise speed of 140 mph by 30 mph crossing the Channel rapidly.  Less than an hour later he’d landed in a farmer’s field in the north of France.  A day later he’d made it to the Turkish border and had just crossed over.

‘Welcome to the Islamic State,’ the sign read in Arabic.

In the space of this small paragraph, I’ve covered a lot of ground (literally, if you excuse the pun!). What happened before was important and comprised the rump of the opening chapter. What happens afterwards is significant to the plot and comprises chapter 2. The specifics of how he got from England to Syria are insignificant to the plot and would bore the reader, hence I narrate them in a short paragraph. All the reader needs to know is that he escaped and fled.

There’s more. Let’s consider the very next paragraph:

His bloodshot eyes drooped from the heavy sacks that had formed below. He’d been sustaining himself on a cocktail of energy drinks and Adrenalin for the last 48 hours.

We’re back to showing. I could have written something like:

He was tired. He hadn’t slept for 48 hours…

But the latter are weaker sentences as they evoke few feelings and fail to engage one’s imagination. It’s dull narration. The former excerpt engages the senses. We learn about his bloodshot eyes and the heavy sacks. This is augmented by the next sentence of telling – he’d been sustaining himself on energy drinks and Adrenalin for 48 hours. We thus can infer that he hadn’t slept for days and that his journey across Europe was difficult, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

So, in conclusion, I’d say learning this elementary skill is a two-stage process:

  1. Learn to show, not tell.
  2. Learn when to tell and not show.

I’m an autodidact. I didn’t study English at university, nor have I attended a creative writing course. My golden rule is: write a story you, yourself, find compelling. If you write a page and upon its conclusion if you find it boring, hit the delete button and re-write it. If you’ve possessive of an analytical, discerning mind, you’ll naturally get a gut feel of the basic literary ideas without having been formally taught them.

Good luck and happy writing!


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