How To Show & Not Tell In Creative Writing [With Examples]

showing

The one piece of advice that every aspiring writer hears a lot is: Show, don’t tell. A story which relies merely on ideas and definitions isn’t particularly moving. It should give the reader an experience instead.

You can either tell that someone is very angry, or you can show you that someone is shouting and smashing things on the floor.

If you say, “He’s a dangerous person. He’s a walking time bomb.

The reader may be a little interested because you’re implying action and excitement, but he won’t be there yet. Consider the alternative:

He’s going to kill someone. Even himself before it’s over. His revolver is lying in the glove compartment, with a six-inch steel barrel and tight coil hammer, and a polished trigger sensitive to the touch. It’s loaded with 6 bullets, so trim and smooth that he gets turned on when thinking about them.

With specific details, this paragraph takes the reader through an experience rather than a generic idea. Of all the writing and storytelling techniques, showing is the most basic. Let’s take another example.

It was one of the worst days in Bob’s life. He had never been so miserable. So he just got home and smashed his head in the wall.

After reading this, does the reader empathize with Bob? No he doesn’t. You have given an idea of misery. But you haven’t shown. You din’t make the reader go through the experience.

Just saying that Bob was miserable wouldn’t make it so. You can’t simply tell the reader and expect him to take your word as is. You need to prove with specifics because just saying doesn’t make it so.

If you want the reader to connect with Bob, you’ll have to show him the experience of what Bob went through. The reader will not simply take your word.

Show him how Bob is humiliated by his boss, mocked by his peers, chastised by his wife and disrespected by his children. Take the reader through Bob’s day so he can identify with Bob. Let the reader live through Bob’s day with him, see what he sees, hear what he hears and feel what he feels.

Only then the reader can put himself in Bob’s place. Only then when Bob’s about the smash his head in the wall, the reader will feel his pain. Showing is what makes your story come out of the page into reader’s imagination.

Good fiction writing is just as visual as a TV show or film. When your reader doesn’t have an image in his head, that’s a bad sign. Stories are supposed to be about experiences that the reader can see, listen to and feel.

How Much To Show?

Showing doesn’t mean you have to be overly descriptive. It’s not necessary to describe everything. Just enough for the reader to be able to visualize it. As human beings, we are masters of making basic assumptions that help us make sense of things around us.

To create a scene in front of your audience, you don’t have to describe every detail. A few key choices are all you need to do it well. Let’s examine another scene:

I enter the kitchen and, “What the hell!” Every goddamn drawer is wide open. Bowls, paper towels, glasses, pots and pans are lying all over the place.

I barge in and start picking them up and putting into their respective drawers, pushing them shut one at a time. Every time a drawer is slammed shut, I hear the soothing sound of each bang in my ears.

Mike is in the porch. And he knows I not happy about this. But how could I say anything? He said if I want us to live together in a happily-ever-after sort of way, I need to stop the nagging. And I understood and agreed.

How does the reader feel about the story so far? It’s going good right? The reader is involved. Partly because the you didn’t just tell him that the kitchen was a mess. You showed him.

With regard to the character’s emotions, the reader gets that she’s angry, worried and upset. But note how the words upset, worried and angry were not used. The emotions were shown. Not told. Let’s proceed to the next part.

Most of the time I am able to curb the nagging. Even if something irritable is causing an itch inside me, I push the feeling away.

However, when I witness every goddamn drawer open, how can I not lose it? It drives me nuts.

How involved do you think the reader is at this point? Not as much as with the previous part right? It’s getting a little boring now. That’s because you have resorted to telling instead of showing.

You say most of the time you’re able to control the urge to nag and push it away. But it’s telling. Not showing. And then you says when every drawer is open, you go crazy.

Again, these are merely ideas. The reader didn’t go through the experience of crazy. Crazy how? What do you feel or do? The reader doesn’t need to be told what you’re feeling. You need to show him, in action.

If you were to edit this piece, you’d have to do away with this telling.

Showing Emotions

As you write, the places where you would slip into telling the most often are emotions. At times, you may say something like, “His anger turned to guilt.”

The problem is you haven’t shown the anger, nor the guilt. Getting feelings into words is one of the hardest aspects of writing. Here’s an example of how you can show one feeling turning into others.

Good lord! He is admitting that he wrecked their Jeep and this it was his fault. Why are they still giving him a hard time? Let him go you filthy bastards. What the hell do they want, blood?

Everyone screws up. No one is perfect. He did have a few beers for lunch. Wait! beers for lunch? Damn, that’s so stupid. Why would he do that? He should know better. Actually he’s the filthy bastard, not them. They are damn right.

Don’t Stop. Fix Later

It’s not realistic to expect that you can stop the telling. Every writer, no matter how amateur or professional, makes these mistakes.

It’s easy to slip into telling with emotions, descriptions and everything else. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying things like a scary storm, a disgusting look, or a risky slope.

You can’t avoid it. The point is to know that it’s okay when that happens, specially in early drafts when you’re focusing on the basic plot.

As a matter of fact, telling is faster way to put something on the page so you can move forward without getting blocked.

There’s no benefit in preventing because if you started watching everything that comes out of your mind when you sit down to write, you’ll keep getting blocked. You’ll be stuck for hours and not get much writing done.

The point is not to prevent the mistakes, but to fix them later. Do multiple drafts. In one revision, you can focus on one aspect, and then the next aspect in the next revision and so on.

Bit by bit, you get your writing to where it should be. That’s how it works for all authors.  So don’t attempt to do the impossible. Just pour everything that flows out of you on the page and rework it later when you finished the draft you’re working on.