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Ah, “Show, don’t tell”—the words conjure up memories of red ink on high school English papers. But for many writers, knowing how to “show” and not “tell” is just as tricky now as it was in freshman year. So, what does it mean exactly?
Academic and technical writers are faced with the task of spelling things out for their audience; their job is to present information as clearly as possible. Their writing is all “tell” and no “show.” But as a creative writer, if you offer nothing but plain and factual details, you’re going to bore readers. Your job is to entertain, to elicit emotion, to activate the right sides of readers’ brains. And this is where showing, rather than telling, comes into play.
In creative writing, to “show” is to present a character trait, plot point, or aspect of setting through thoughts, senses, actions, metaphors, or another literary device. In other words, you don’t want to tell the reader that a character is a certain way; rather, you want to provide clues for the reader to deduce it on his or her own.
The difference between “showing” images and “telling” facts:
Showing By Example:
Show: Her son chased the frightened dog around the kitchen table, trying to pull its tail, before hurling a fistful of spaghetti and red sauce at the wall.
Tell: Her son was wild and badly behaved.
Show: We had to crane our necks to see the tops of the skyscrapers, which seemed to reach up through the clouds.
Tell: We saw lots of very tall buildings.
Show: The beleaguered schooner was tossed to and fro, like nothing more than a twig on the raging sea.
Tell: The ship was caught in a violent storm.
“Showing” allows you to grab your reader’s attention in short stories and creative nonfiction. You can also use this technique in personal essays or memoirs to provide narrative depth for factual events, without straying from the truth.
And while “showing” makes your story engaging, it shouldn’t be ALL “show,” no “tell.” The best stories are those that achieve the right balance between “showing” and narration.
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