How to Show vs. Tell

How to Show vs. Tell

It can be one of the most intimidating commands for writers, i.e., “Show, don’t tell.” I remember hearing it in grade school, high school, and later, writer’s conferences. But how can you show something through the written word? It’s not like you’re making a video, drawing a picture, or animating cartoons. So where does that leave a writer who wants to capture a reader’s attention through words? It seems like an oxymoron, an impossible, hair-pulling task, right? But there are some strategies and techniques writers can turn to in the face of such madness. Read on to find out more.

First of all, let’s back up a little. A storybook is all about telling a story, right? Isn’t that what it’s all about, telling fairytales to children? However, the sticking point is in the way we tell our stories. Here’s what I mean.

Telling is when we use words to explain what is happening. Conversely, showing is when we use words that convey action. Convey is a good word to describe how we translate words into action. The definition of convey on Merriam-Webster.com is to impart or communicate by statement, suggestion, gesture, or appearance. Synonyms for convey are express, deliver, communicate, impart, and transmit. So, my advice to you is that when telling your stories, you must use words that convey what is happening rather than explain what is happening.

Telling

For example, the following is a passage that explains what is happening:

Janey rode her bike every day to school. But every day she was late, and it made her best friend, Lizzy, very angry when she had to wait outside while Janey served detention after school. Today Lizzy wanted to walk down to the yogurt shop and hang out. Bobby might be there. The dance was only a few days off, and he just might ask Lizzy to go with him, if the timing was right. Janey put her head down and focused on the bike trail that wound its way to the school, determined not to let Lizzy down.

From this passage we know several things:

  • The protagonist, Janey, rides her bike to school every day
  • Janey is always late and gets detention
  • Janey has let her friend, Lizzy, down before
  • Janey and her friend want to go to the yogurt shop after school
  • They want Bobby to ask Lizzy to the dance
  • It’s all riding on Janey to be on time

Showing

This next passage provides the same details, but conveys what we need to know through dialogue, references to past events, varied sentence length, and action words that create a sense of urgency:

Janey raced along the rutted sidewalk, her old bike holding up like a champ with its newly repaired front tire. “I won’t be late. I won’t be late,” she ground between her teeth. “Not today!” She could picture Lizzy’s familiar scowl through the window of Mrs. Leroy’s after-school detention room. But not today. Today, Janey Patterson was getting her act together. Today, Janey Patterson was going to be a model student and reliable friend. She had already gotten permission from Mom to meet Lizzy at the yogurt shop after school. And strategies? She had them in spades. It was all about timing. Bobby and Lizzy both liked lots of toppings. All Janey had to do was make sure they were at the toppings bar at the same time. And maybe, just maybe, he’d ask her to the dance on Friday.

Convey, Don’t Explain

You could say that both passages are telling the reader what is happening. However, the second passage conveys more action. In this way, it shows the reader what is happening rather than explaining what is happening. So, a better way of saying “Show, don’t tell” may be to say “Convey, don’t explain”.

Guidelines

Here are a few guidelines to help you with showing vs. telling:

  • Use dialogue, including inner thoughts
  • Use action verbs
  • Use adjectives
  • Vary sentence structure to convey urgency, or conversely, “quiet” moments
  • Use allusions to past events
  • Don’t stop to explain

Picture Books

The examples I used were for a middle-grade novel but using action in a picture book is just as important. Remember that in a picture book every word counts. A good example of picture books that use plenty of action, and therefore show vs. tell, are the Pigeon books by Mo Willems, i.e., Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! These are still favorites in my household.

Learn from Others

The best way to learn how to add elements to your story is to learn from others. Go through the children’s books in your collection. Look for how the author shows vs. explains what is happening. Then go back to your own notes and find ways to make your writing more active.

Check back again for more writing tips.

Happy writing, Elaine


Books mentioned in this Writing Tip: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems


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