You’ve Heard the Writing Advice “Show Don’t Tell.” What Does it Actually Mean?

You’ve almost definitely heard the writing advice, “show don’t tell.” It’s one of those tidbits passed from writer to writer, and—I’ll own up to this—heavily encouraged by the English teachers of the world. Yet, when you ask people to elaborate, you usually get a similarly vague, often-repeated answer. Add more detail. But, you know, the right details. Sensory details. But also, get to the point and don’t be too wordy. Try to, um… show? Instead of tell?

So, we’re back to the question above. What does “Show Don’t Tell Mean?”

In an attempt partly inspired by an audio course called The Art of Storytelling, by Professor Hannah B. Harvey, I’m going to give this a try.

Let’s start by asking, is it really better to show than tell?

The answer, according to Professor Harvey, and me, and probably you, too, if we’re all being honest, is “sometimes.”

Sometimes, we do want to hear all about the inside of the new car you were driving, how the seats smelled, how the steering wheel vibrated in your hand as you went over the bumps in the half-paved road, a light rain falling on the windshield as you searched the unfamiliar dashboard for whichever tiny switch might turn on the wipers, the radio turned up louder than you normally would have to impress the curly-haired woman in the seat next to you, who had no idea you were about to drive to the edge of a lake, stop the car, and ask her to prom. Maybe we want to know that the girl had a ring on her thumb, which she was turning unconsciously with her other hand as she gazed out the window. Maybe we want to know that the ring was inlaid with tiny, blue stones.

Other times, your story is better served by telling us that senior year was the year you got a girlfriend and a car.

Professor Harvey gives the best advice I’ve found on this, which is that it depends on how fast you want to cover this particular part of the story.

If you want to cover lots of ground, faster than it happened in real life, you use narration.

With narration, you can tell us in one sentence what happened over the course of a year, or even ten years. Narration is telling, not showing.

If you want the speed of your story to roughly match the real-time unfolding of events, you switch to scene.

A scene happens in one particular place and time. It contains dialogue and action. Scene is showing.

If you want the speed of your story to be slower than events unfolded, you use description.

This is showing, also, but you are taking time, usually in the middle of a scene, to slow down and show the audience something you want them to see. This might be something that they need to understand other parts of the story, or something that has symbolic value in the story. For example, that ring on the finger of the girl in the story above? Maybe the narrator gave that to her. Or maybe he will later find out that her ex-boyfriend gave it to her, in which case, why is she still wearing it?

Here’s another way to think of it.

  • Narration = Fast forward
  • Scene = Play
  • Description = Pause

Just like in a movie, each of these speeds has a place in your story. As the storyteller, you have to mix these up to get the pacing and effect you want.

Here’s an exercise to help you practice this skill.

Revise a piece you’ve already written, paying attention to the following
  1. Where you want to fast forward with narration.
  2. Where you want to play the story in real time with scene, dialogue, and action.
  3. Where you want to pause the story with description to emphasize certain details.

Good luck!

14 Years of Building a Writing Career in 14 Days of Emails

14 Years of Building a Writing Career in 14 Days of Emails

Two weeks of daily emails. Part creative writing crash course, part mobile-friendly memoir about building a career as an author.