The Value of “Show, Don’t Tell” In Your Writing

When I first started to write fiction and send my manuscripts out for feedback, the first and most frequent thing my readers said was “Show, don’t tell.” In theory, I understood what this meant. But it was almost impossible for me to put it into practice after comments such as, “Why don’t you show your character sitting in a café getting frustrated with her friend? I’d really like to see that happening, rather than just being told it’s happening. It would give us a lot more insight into their characters.”

Okay. So how do I go about that? I’m not sure I understand how you can’t see it happening when I’m telling you it’s happening. What’s the difference?

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: MarkR won.)

 

 

       

Guest column by Jessica Bell, author of the writing guide,
SHOW & TELL IN A NUTSHELL: DEMONSTRATED TRANSITIONS
FROM TELLING TO SHOWING. Australian-native contemporary
fiction author and poet who also makes a living as an editor and
writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such
as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education
First and Cengage Learning.  She is the Co-Publishing Editor of
Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the summer event, the
Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca.
For more information about Jessica, please visit her
blog, her Twitter, and her Facebook. There are four different
versions of her book: the US paperback, the UK paperback, the
US e-book, and the UK e-book.

 

I never truly understood the difference until I’d accomplished it by accident one day. My motivation was that I needed to increase the word count in one of my manuscripts. I had a 60,000-word novel that needed 80,000–100,000 before I could submit it to agents.

I combed through my manuscript, marking scenes I thought I could expand. By the time I’d finished reworking the first scene, the concept clicked. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel. Simply put, does me saying Hilary felt scared make you feel scared? Of course not.

(Will a literary agent search for you online after you query them?)

This is why I felt the need to publish a pocket guide: to show writers, how to SHOW, INSTEAD OF TELL. It’s one resource I craved and couldn’t find during the early years. I needed real examples that clearly demonstrated the transition from telling to showing, in a small, concise, non-threatening, non-overwhelming format. Something I could dip into without getting lost in the jungle of technical jargon that I never really understood until I Googled my fingertips into flames. I learned better by example. By physically doing and reworking, making mistakes and fixing them through trial and error.

No matter how entertaining, diverse, concise, or detailed, a writing craft book is, it’s not going to work magic on you, it’s not going to suddenly make you a brilliant writer simply by reading it. You need to use what you read and learn in your own writing. Because that’s when you have those a-ha moments. That’s when it really sticks.

In Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing, you will find sixteen real scenes depicting a variety of situations, emotions, and characteristics which clearly demonstrate how to turn telling into showing. Dispersed throughout, and at the back of the book, are blank pages to take notes as you read. A few short writing prompts are also provided.

(Read tips on writing a query letter.)

I tried to make this pocket guide an excellent learning tool for aspiring writers and also a light, convenient, and easy solution to honing your craft no matter how broad your writing experience. Keep it in the side pocket of your school bag, throw it in your purse, or even carry it around in the pocket of your jeans or jacket, to enhance your skills, keep notes, and jot down story ideas, anywhere, anytime.

I also welcome questions via email, concerning the content of this book, or about showing vs. telling in general, at showandtellinanutshell@gmail.com.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: MarkR won.)

 


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89 thoughts on “The Value of “Show, Don’t Tell” In Your Writing

  1. SteveLowe

    Althought I can see the difference between ‘showing’ & ‘telling’, I really don’t personally think that obsessing over the former actually improves writing any. And I was over-the-moon to see Lee Child agree with me in his article on this site. I really think that, if a writer is good enough – and what’s perhaps just as important, his readers are intelligent, attentive & lack a low boredom threshold – then there is no problem, whatsoever with ‘telling a story’. That’s, after all, the operative phrase, isn’t it? I mean, when was the last time you ever heard anyone say: ‘I’m going to ‘show’ you a story….’?

  2. Jen1313

    I experienced the same problem you did with showing instead of telling. I’m getting better at it, but sometimes find myself slipping into the telling habit again. Your book sounds like a useful resource!

  3. Hannah O

    I agree that showing enables the reader become more involved with the character, with his or her actions and emotions. However, there’s some conflicting advice out there, which say that rules are ment to be broken and this “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the rules often discussed. They say showing is overrated and if telling works, just do it.

    I’m all for breaking the rules, but I realize telling can often be weak and bland; on the other hand, showing can be overdone by some writers, making me wish they would stop already. I think a guide with great examples like you’ve mentioned will clearly show (pun intended!) how it’s done and how we can strike the balance enough to engage our readers.

  4. Romana Van Lissum

    Jessica,
    What an excellent idea! Why hasn’t this book been put together a lot sooner? This is a concept that many writers struggle with; showing vs telling.
    I love to bury my nose in grammar books (sheesh, I sound like such a geek!) and this would be another interesting read!
    Thank you for publishing!

  5. BookLover2

    This book is exactly what I need to make my NaNoWriMo novel even better! I have always heard the “Show, don’t tell” expression but no one ever thinks to give examples as to how this should be accomplished. This would also help my ESOL students who always struggle with writing. Thank you for publishing this much needed book!

  6. Janna

    I’m being held captive by this ditzy woman character in my novel. She keeps saying, “Get me right this time. I’m not the effervescence bottle of saccharine you portray.” There it is. I’m stuck with a character who talks back. I suspect your pocket-book (what a wonderful concept as I’m always writing on the go) will give my characters the vividness they deserve. Thank you.

  7. txtootsie

    I like what you said about a cinematic view. I read somewhere that to show rather than tell, pretend you are following your character around with a camera and write what the camera sees. It has helped my writing trememdously.

  8. Kaylyn

    Oh my goodness. I could use this so much. I hear the ‘show don’t tell’ all the time with my picture books, but can’t figure out how to do it. I always thought the pictures would do it for me.

  9. Scott M

    One other comment…It would have been helpful if Ms. Bell had included an example of “showing, not telling” in her column – perhaps even one of the examples from her book. Thanks to some of the commenters who were kind enough to do so!

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