By Ellen Gwin
What is “Show Don’t Tell?”
When workshopping poetry everyone always screams, “show us, don’t tell us!” But what does this mean? I feel like I’m already showing. How do I put my abstract ideas into concrete sentences?
“Show don’t tell” does not necessarily mean one should add more adjectives to frame the scene, it means to capture the scene, emotions, experiences, in a way that the reader can draw their own conclusions.
Anton Checkhov explains the “show don’t tell” concept by saying, “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.” What Checkhov says here is that when you want to discuss the moonlight, instead mention how the light of the stars reflects off broken glass; when you’re capturing a scene or an emotion, you should close your eyes and really put yourself in the moment: in the senses, and in the feelings.
Most people know this quote by Checkhov in the shortened version, “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.”
Show is a tool used by writers to provide concrete and/or vivid details in writing. These details help readers develop their own relationship with the work by helping them create mental images and forcing the reader to empathize & interact with the writing.
Tell simply states to the reader what happens, what is present in the scene, how it happens, and how one should feel. This tactic creates a one-sided POV, which causes the writer’s view to seem two-dimensional and the reader to feel like the cannot forge a personal connection with the work. The lack of personal connection will make the reader feel uninvolved and therefore uninterested as they will not be using their imagination, experiences, or unique ideas.
5 Ways to Implement “Show Don’t Tell“
1. Appeal to the reader’s five senses
Stimulate the reader’s five senses through your words: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
This technique helps to show instead of tell but also forces your character (and therefore reader) to interact with the scene more!
Sight— What exactly does your character see? Is it associated with a memory? Does the sight cause an emotion or action? Does whatever you see interact with anything else in the scene?
If the character sees the snow don’t just say “I looked out the window and saw white snow.” Talk about how your character jumped into the frigid, fluffy snow that reminded them of all the summer popsicles they’d consumed in their youth back in Louisiana. Talk about how the snow was so bright the sunlight reflected back into their eyes causing them to accidentally stepped into a giant fluffy pile of snow, soaking their socks.
Smell— What exactly does your character smell? Is it associated with a memory? Does the smell cause an emotion or action? Does whatever you smell interact with anything else in the scene?
If the character smells a pie talk about which direction in comes from, what other scents it might be mingling with in the air, show a memory the character associates with the pie.
Sound— What exactly does your character hear? Is it associated with a memory? Does the sound cause an emotion or action? Does whatever you hear interact with anything else in the scene?
Every sound, big and small, creates a vivid detail. Humans rely on sound whether we are fully conscious of the background noise or not. Is music playing, are birds chirping, leaves rustling, fires crackling, voices giggling, voices whispering, the sound of a refrigerator?Where is the sound? Is it close or far? Is it annoying or pleasant?Don’t just talk about sitting in a silent office. Say you were writing in an office supposedly silent but all you could think about was the clunking of the damned ice machine down the hall.
Taste— What exactly does your character taste? Is it associated with a memory? Does the taste cause an emotion or action? Does whatever you taste interact with anything else in the scene?
Taste is about what your character tastes obviously but also about the texture of the food. Food/drink is also interesting because dishes are geographically unique and sometimes even social-class unique. What your character eats and how they react to it reveals a lot about them. How the dish is prepared will also reveal a lot about other characters in the room. Is the food good or bad? Is it a meal or grown off a tree/vine? What does it feel like in your mouth?
Touch— What exactly does your character touch? Is it associated with a memory? Does the touch/feeling cause an emotion or action? Does whatever you touch interact with anything else in the scene?
Touch involves more than what your character touches with their hands. What is your character sitting/standing on? What are they wearing? Is it comfortable? Are they fidgeting with anything? Holding anything? How does the weather make the character’s skin feel?
2. Replace abstract nouns with verbs
Abstract nouns express concepts, ideas, and qualities that are intangible like: love, hate, freedom, beauty, peace, truth, chaos, courage, sadness, joy, anger, belief, etc.
Obviously not all abstract nouns are avoidable and unnecessary, but one should try to limit them.
By showing these intangible concepts instead of telling them, they become more tangible to the reader. If the writer simply says, “Bob is in love,” the reader must take their word for it. However, if the writer shows how Bob is in love then the reader gets to experience it along with Bob, forging that personal connection.
Instead of saying your character is in love, show the reader how your character acts around the one they love or when they are in love. Maybe the character buys extra pastries every morning for the coworker they have a crush on, maybe the character is so distracted by their enamored thoughts that they trip over a curb.
Instead of saying your character is brave, show how they are brave; make your character do something outrageous.
Instead of saying the citizens have no freedom, show what they do not have. In juxtaposition, show what those in power do have.
3. Replace adverbs
Adverbs steal a chance from the writer to show how the character carries out an action rather than plainly telling what the character does.
A few examples of adverbs are : absentmindedly, beautifully, lazily, quickly, carefully. Here is a list of more adverbs.
Obviously not all adverbs are avoidable and unnecessary, but one should try to limit them.
In one of my favorite books about writing, On Writing by Stephen King, King says, “with adverbs the writer..tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly.“
“She walked home from school absentmindedly,” could instead be, “She walked home from school tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, thoughts more tangled than her hair.”
4. Use verbs in lieu of adjectives
This is one that I am working on myself and I find it very difficult!
Instead of describing a person or object, show what their actions are. This way the reader can connect with the person or object by implementing their own POV.
Instead of saying someone acted cruelly, show what cruel things the person did. Use action, do they hit babies? Did they insult someone? Did they stomp on a flower garden? If the person sneers, what put the sneer on their face?
If you say someone’s jewelry is shining, talk about how the jewels catch the light instead.
If you’re describing the blue sky, talk about how the bird fly in a cloudless sky, talk about the way the sun beats down with nowhere to hide.
Show the reader the descriptions of everything by demonstrating the adjective through an object in action.
5. Take advantage of metaphors and similes
Using metaphors/similes will spruce up a boring description, make inanimate objects animate or purposeful, and liven simple verbs.
Don’t overuse this one as it could get annoying to your readers!
When showing people one can evoke the personality of the characters as well. Instead of she was tall and brave, “she stood graceful as a lily and tall as a tree in the face of absolute horror.”
Instead of cautious, “he hid behind his glasses like an ostrich sensing a hunt.”
Instead of big, blue, eyes, “his eyes were like the vast ocean.”
When showing a setting one can use interesting images and verbs to capture the vibe of a scene. Saying “the bed was in the corner, a closet to the right, and one big window outlooking a parking lot,” sounds so boring.
Instead say “A bed wider than the grand canyon begged to sing me to sleep, a closet deeper than the ocean to hold all of my clothes, an angelic window like a glimpse into my future.”
OR one could say, “a bed smaller than a popsicle stick, Harry Potter would have laughed. I turned to the closet and found something akin to an upright coffin. The window was permanently fogged over like stained tupperware.”
When using simple verbs, one can use metaphors or similes instead as a way showing the action. Simple verbs can include verbs in the “past simple” tense: angrily, happily froze, bounced, boiled, argued, held, examined, etc.
For example instead of, “he spoke angrily,” one could say “he growled the words like a grizzly bear.”
Instead of “she held the trophy” one could say “she cradled the trophy like a new born baby.”
Instead of saying, “she examined the paper thoroughly” one could say “she was more thorough than a dog under the dinner table on Thanksgiving.”
I hope everyone found these tips helpful and happy writing! –Elle