If you’re like me, you’ve seen this quote about eight thousand times:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
What does that actually mean, though?
Good news: I can help. “Show, don’t tell” is actually a lot simpler than it seems.
What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means
When you show instead of telling, you’re giving the reader specific sensations to which they can relate with (a) their five senses or (b) natural human empathy.
This means instead of saying, “The snow was cold,” you’d say, “Her skin erupted in goosebumps,” or “She couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering,” or even, “Her numb fingers still found a way to ache, deep inside, as though the bones were screaming.”
This works with heat, hunger, weariness, or any physical, emotional, or mental condition.
- “She was sleepy,” vs. “Her eyelids felt like magnets she couldn’t keep apart.”
- “He felt hot.” vs. “Sweat stung his eyes and glued his shirt to his skin.”
- “She was very sad and didn’t want to talk anymore,” vs. “Her throat tightened; she could no longer find the words.”
- “Pete was really angry and approached because he planned to hit Tom.” vs. “Pete’s fists clenched. Breathing thick and heavy like a charging bull, he stepped so close Tom could see himself reflected in Pete’s eyes.”
The key is this: showing means describing something you’ve experienced—something all humans have experienced—so they relate to your characters.
That’s half the reason a sympathetic villain like Loki from the Marvel movie franchise works so well. Actor Tom Hiddleston shows you sorrow, fear, envy, and the pain of feeling rejected or unworthy. We can all relate to that, and so—even though what Loki does is quite heinous—many of us can relate to him.
What “Show Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Mean
It doesn’t mean more words. More words often come into it, but not every time, and it isn’t required. Here’s an example:
- Showing: She gasped.
- Telling: She was suddenly startled.
It doesn’t mean only show, never tell. There are times to tell it like it is. Telling instead of showing can move a scene along, avoid distraction, or even act like an exclamation point: short, sharp, and to the point.
- Showing: His face twisting and his eyes flashing, he shut the door with such force that the entire cheap house’s frame shook as if in a hurricane. (I know it’s a silly example. Hush.)
- Telling: He slammed the door so hard the house shook.
How do you decide whether to show or tell? It depends on where you want your focus. Do you want this moment to focus on the drama, on the guy storming out, and on the madness of the scene? Use showing. Or would you rather this scene play like a moment in a movie when the background music stops, leaving the characters to deal with the emptiness and horror of what just happened? Then tell.
Showing is a glorious, elaborate frame, designed to draw focus to itself. Telling is a simple black frame, designed to draw your eye to the contents. Both are acceptable, depending on circumstances.
“Show, Don’t Tell” Exercise
It’s time to practice this. Take five minutes and note two things:
- What do your five senses tell you about your world? (Colors and shapes, the smell of cooked food or fresh laundry, traffic sounds, the taste of toothpaste, the firmness of your seat, etc.). Practice describing what’s you feel specifically.
- What physical sensations do your emotions create? (When you’re mad, how do you feel? When you’re excited, what happens? When you’re afraid, does your stomach churn? When you’re focused, do you clench your teeth?) Practice describing your emotions by the specific sensations they cause, rather than by naming them.
You can do this.
So how would you apply “show, don’t tell” to your current WIP (work-in-progress)? Answer in the comments or send me an email, and let’s crack this writing mystery open.