Show, Don’t Tell

If you’ve been a writer for more than a few days, you’ve heard the saying, ‘Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of those things that every writer hears- over and over and over again. It’s an axiom, a chant, a truth… a law.

And although some laws are made to be broken, don’t break this law. At least most of the time. As a new or beginning author, you need, no you must have this law on your mind at all times. Here’s why- Show is active. It engages the reader in the story. Telling is passive. It doesn’t make the reader part of the story. (More about active versus passive in another blog real soon.)

Let me give you an example:

Telling—
John was mad. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Wally had tried to calm him down but John wouldn’t listen.

Showing—
“What?” John slammed the door and stalked over to Wally’s desk. He deliberately placed both hands flat on the desk, leaning closer to Wally. “What are you talking about? How can-”
“Calm down, man,” Wally said holding his hands out, palms toward John. “It isn’t that bad. The last thing-”
“Calm down! Calm down! That contract was mine. That little weasel-”
“John, would you listen to me! The contract is still yours. Fred only went-”
John pounded a fist on the desk cutting Wally off. The red flash brightened on John’s cheeks. His voice deepened even as it ratcheted up a notch in volume. “No one is supposed to work my contracts. No one!”

Do you see the difference? The first one, telling, doesn’t engage the reader in the story. Very passive. Is the reader caught up in the action in the telling? No.

But with the showing, the reader gets involved in the action. The reader figures out that John is mad and won’t listen. The reader might even put themselves in the scene because everyone can relate to being this mad at something. You are engaging the reader in the story. Absolutely vital.

Since the reader is engaged they are less likely to put the book down or stop reading. And this is something that you never, ever want your reader to do.

Stay tuned.

Angela Abderhalden is the author of the Mel Addison Mystery Series and is an Acquiring Editor for Seventh Wave Books, LLC.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Yeah but how come this rule gets ignored so often? I think intentionally ignoring it is fine, if you have built some purpose around it. I agree with you, a law that should not be broken but seems in fact to be the one that gets busted up most of the time.

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