Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

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One of the most important pieces of advice that any writer receives, and one of the most difficult to actually put into practice, is that you should show rather than tell. But what does that really mean? One of my professors once told me that the difference between showing and telling was a cinematic quality to your writing. When you tell what’s going to happen, your story reads more like the script of a movie with its stage direction spelled out in blunt detail. Instead, you want your writing to resemble the way an actor or actress portrays those stage directions in the film itself. Rather than dull stage directions, you want the cinematic detail of an evocative and emotional scene to come through in your writing.

All right, so now we understand what showing rather than telling means. But how do you put it into practice in your writing? Something that I tell myself when writing is to remember that emotion needs to be conveyed rather than spelled out. What makes the difference there is letting your characters tell what’s happening and how they’re feeling rather than explaining it all through exposition. Put your characters into a difficult situation, have them converse, have them react to what’s going on, and the emotion and meaning of the scene will come across through them.

I found a great piece of advice regarding showing rather than telling in a Writer Unboxed post several weeks ago. In the post How to Change Telling into Showing, author Jessica Bell discussed the difficulty she had in explaining how to master this major component of writing. Here she describes how she came to realize what showing was all about while reading a passage from her own work:

My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel.

Using the senses is another great technique to turn your telling writing into showing. Evoking smell, taste, or touch will put your readers into the scene you’re writing and they will be able to imagine what’s happening there. Rather than you telling them how something tastes or feels, they will smell and taste it for themselves because you’ve conveyed it through your writing. You have shown them rather than told them.

Of course, the best advice out there is to keep on writing. It’s only through practice that your writing will improve. This week, when you sit down to write your next scene, try to do it through showing rather than telling. Then come back and tell us how you did in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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