Show, Don’t Tell?

If you’ve been a creative writer for very long, you have heard this directive repeatedly—Show, Don’t Tell. But what exactly does it mean? What does show mean? What does tell mean?

Here’s a simple definition for each: to show means to present fictional material through immediate sense perceptions, to offer character experience. To tell means to present fictional material through the narrator’s analysis, to offer abstract ideas.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says, “Fiction must contain ideas, which give significance to characters and events. . . . But the ideas must be experienced through or with the characters; they must be felt or the fiction will fail . . .”

James Joyce: One of the best at showing.

Maybe the directive should be “Show ideas, don’t Tell them.” The reader should be able to understand the story’s ideas through the characters’ actions and experience. If the narrator has to spell out the meaning for the reader, then the writer has not done a good enough job of telling the story.

Burroway offers several techniques for showing, not telling. The most important of these is the use of Significant Detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction,” she says. She is referring to details that appeal to the senses—things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. But a writer must do more than simply offer sense details. The details “must be details ‘that matter.’” This idea of careful selection of details that “implicitly suggest meaning and value” is central to Burroway’s argument.

Here’s a simple example. Your character has lost her job and is feeling depressed. Your narrator can simply say, “She was depressed.” In that case, you would be telling the reader by using an abstract expression. Simple and direct, perhaps, but also boring. On the other hand, your narrator can have the character open her second bottle of wine, spill some on her blouse, and begin to cry. The room may be drab and dark, the sky dull and cloudy. A bird singing outside the window may make the character angry. All of these details are experiences that reproduce the emotional impact of depression for the reader.

When you use carefully selected, concrete, descriptive details like these, you are showing, not telling.

Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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