Show, Don’t Tell—But How?

Last week I told a brief joke about a man walking into a bar, accompanied by a piece of asphalt. Like most jokes, this one was short and didn’t give much detail. It had no power or punch, no strong feel of action or movement. I doubt you will remember it a month from now. Other than the man walking and talking and nodding, the “scene” was stagnant, with little to stir the imagination or evoke emotion.

Maybe your own writing feels this way to you—often—and you don’t know what to do to make it better. Maybe you’ve read a dozen books on the writing craft and have attended countless workshops at writers’ conferences and you still can’t seem to “get” how to write powerful, evocative scenes that move your readers. Well, if you sometimes feel like strangling, stabbing, or decapitating your novel because of flat, boring, lackluster scenes, you can shoot your novel instead!

 Show, Don’t Tell—But How?

Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, says, “Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.” This is even more true in the twenty-first century. As literary agent and author Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Make characters do something that readers can visualize.”

We’ve heard it countless times: show, don’t tell. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. There are a myriad of choices a writer has to make in order to “show” and not “tell” a scene. Writers are often told they need to show, which in essence means to create visual scenes the reader can “watch” unfold as they read.

But telling a writer to “show” is vague. Just how do you show? How do you transfer the clearly enacted scene playing in your mind to the page in a way that not only gets the reader to see just what you want her to see but also comes across with the emotional impact you intend?

 The Shotgun Method

Writers know that if they say “Jane was terrified,” that only tells the reader what Jane is feeling; it doesn’t show her terrified. So they go on to construct a scene that shows Jane in action and reacting to the thing that inspires fear in her. And somehow in doing so writers hope they will make their reader afraid too. But that’s often like using a shotgun approach. You aim at a target from a hundred yards away with a shotgun and hope a few buckshot pellets actually hit the bull’s eye.

Many writers think if they just “point and shoot” they will hit their target every time. But then, when they get lackluster reviews, or dozens of agent or publisher rejections, they can’t figure out what they did wrong, or failed to do. Why is this? Is there some “secret formula” to writing visually impacting scenes every time?

No, It’s Not a Secret

No, not secret. In fact, the method is not only staring writers in the face; we have all been raised watching thousands of movies and television shows. The style, technique, and methods used in film and TV are so familiar to us, we process them comfortably and even subconsciously. We now expect these elements to appear in the novels we read, to some degree—if not consciously then subconsciously. We know what makes a great, riveting scene in a movie, and what makes a boring one—at least viscerally. And though our tastes differ, certainly, for the most part we often agree when a scene “works” or doesn’t. It either accomplishes what the writer or director has set out to do, or it flops.

So since we have all been (over)exposed to film and its visual way of storytelling, and its influence on society has altered the tastes of fiction readers, it’s only logical to take a look at what makes a great movie. Note that we’re not looking at plot or premise in this course, for that’s an entirely different subject. Instead, we’re going to deconstruct movie technique into bite-sized pieces.

Just as your novel comprises a string of scenes that flow together to tell your whole story, so too with movies and television shows. However, you, the novelist, lay out your scenes much differently from the way a screenwriter does. Whereas you might see each of your scenes as integrated, encapsulated moments of time, a movie director sees each scene as a compilation of a number of segments or pieces—a collection of camera shots that are subsequently edited and fit together to create that seamless “moment of time.” So get ready to think in terms of “segments” that make up a scene, and we’ll dive into all the camera shots you can use to create segments that will supercharge your scenes.

This week, pull out a novel or two—something published or your work in progress (WIP). Look at some scenes and assess whether they come across visually, making it easy to picture as a movie scene. Take a scene that is flat and in which little happens and try to imagine shooting it with a movie camera. How would you shoot this? From what angles? How many “segments” would you need to piece together to make a complete scene? Although we haven’t gone yet into just how to do this, get your thoughts flowing on this concept and we’ll dive in with more next week.

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  1. Absolutely on the mark. I basked in this kind of show–not tell last night when I started rereading Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella for this month’s book club meeting. It’s been 30 years since I originally read this book–years before it became the Kevin Costner film, and never could figure out why I picked up the paperback at Waldenbooks because I truly don’t like baseball (unAmerican, I know, but it’s soooo sloooooowwww). Yet last night, when I was pulled back into the protagonist’s efforts to build first left field, then the whole diamond, followed him through his efforts and eavesdropped as he learned tricks from other groundskeepers in the story, I shook my head in wonder at the talents of a master writer at work. Here is a book I really shouldn’t like, since it involves a sport I have absolutely no interest in, but I’m right there beside him, sitting in the bleachers, watching as the long dead players reappear and slam another ball out of the field.

    Thanks for this blog. It’s a reminder all writers need to read every day.

  2. Please feel free to remove this slightly snarky reply, which is directed not so much at you as to an entire industry of online experts.

    I feel compelled to answer the titular question of the blog with some questions of my own, uncensored for the sake of suasion.

    Questions for blog-reading authors: Is pandering to reduced attention span and television-induced cognitive catatonia what your writing is about? Is formulaic mimicry of trendy tropes the literary legacy you want to create?

    As for me, I confess to being bored by the pontificating that harps on “Show, don’t tell!” and by the constant screed against exposition and adverbs and passive voice.

    Ironically, often the most visual and cinematic scenes in literature are crafted from narrative, not action, from exposition as well as dialogue, and from rich and evocative modifiers as much as from nouns and verbs. What have we done to our marvelous language? By degrees, we have pared it down to an anorexic ghost of its once-glorious rotundity, replacing inspired, individual style with by-the-rules, engineered text.

    I will probably get into trouble for this comment and will live to regret it. After all, who am I to question such good guidelines? I am only a writer, not a writer on writing.

    Its a well written blog Susanne, but I do wish the community of online editorial experts could move on to something new.

    1. Larry, I totally hear what you are saying. And I don’t believe every novel in the world needs to follow cinematic formulas. I write literary fiction as well and I find that language by itself (ass in poetry too) is often powerful and needs no cinematic framework. However … I will say from a personal vantage point that I find novels with pages of detached explanatory narrative boring and just bad writing. I critique and edit novels almost every day of the year for a living, and I have come to feel strongly that “show, don’t tell” is very important to telling a gripping story. Way back in the day, when stories were told aloud, before they were written down in books, I imagine the speaker painted a picture and told their stories in a way their listeners could picture each moment taking place. The purpose of the telling was to help them visualize an account–maybe a hunt or something that happened. Of course there are many variations in global storytelling tradition. But i think the point I’m making is that the purpose of telling a story is to help the reader see the story in her mind’s eye, not be told about it.

      So, although I love great literary fiction, I, along with so many readers today, don’t want to be bogged down with narrative, however beautifully written, that doesn’t really show me anything. Lengthy narrative often is a way of telling the reader a whole bunch of info and backstory that could be brought into the story in a much more engaging and intriguing way. For the most part “telling” is dull, detached, and does not evoke emotional response. If a writer wants that, that’s fine. But most writers want to engage the reader and evoke a specific response, and that’s why I defer to cinematic effect. I hope you will follow the blog all year and see how these camera shots translate and even if you don’t want to “use them” all the time for every scene, they are great tools to have at hand in the event you actually do want to show something instead of telling the reader about it. Thanks again for sharing your comment!

    2. I agree ,Larry! It does not matter at all. I have read many Pulitzer winning books that were tell only.The winning difference in my opinion is strong writing style and using the proper adjectives.
      Tell only is very effective in first person.

      1. Even if first person, which I”ll be showing numerous times in the blog posts through the year, it’s important to show. To have the person in their head “see” and record with their inner camera what is happening rather than just talk about it to the reader. There’s a place for both, but again, showing is more powerful and immediate and engaging. The more you tell, the more you distance your reader. With creative technique, you can be in first person and still make it feel like you are watching a scene unfold rather being told about it.

    3. “Is pandering to reduced attention span and television-induced cognitive catatonia what your writing is about?”

      Acknowledging that audiences have changed is not pandering. I can’t speak for others, but while I write for myself in the esoteric sense, I want others to read and enjoy my writing as well.
      This post reminded me of a conversation my husband and I had with my teenager recently…for some reason we got on the subject of the movie “12 Angry Men” and describing how gripping and exciting it was. As we continued to describe the film to my son, we realized that a movie comprised entirely of dialogue, taking place in a single room with no action, would never make it in the theatres today.
      So while it will always remain a classic, it could never get made today.

      1. You know, if it were remade (and I think there is a remake, right?) it probably would be done the same way and just as good. it’s a timeless movie. Have you seen the Runaway Jury? Many of the scenes are also in a sequestered jury room. No doubt, the shots chosen would vary depending on the screenwriter, producer, and director, but who’s to say it wouldn’t be just as powerful a movie?

        And I agree. I’m not talking about pandering here. In this day and age, with all the cool tech we have, it opens up wonderful ways for filmmakers to make powerful movies. In the old days, as I will get into a lot in this course, movies began as a way to transfer the stage play to the screen. There were no camera shots and no film editing. The camera acted as the audience viewing the play from one angle. But now look what we get. And so novelists, instead of looking at this as pandering, can just expand their set of tools to be able to get the best effect and give their scenes the greatest punch. And that’s something I’m all for.

  3. I’ve heard that ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra for years, and it’s, of course, both practical and plausible. But, the dilemma for most writers becomes how much detail do you include in showing something. Take this passage from my current novel-in-progress, for example:

    “He ran his fingers through his thick blue-black hair and stood slowly, his knee joints creaking as if he was an old man. He wandered into the den, shrugging the broad shoulders that capped his muscular five-foot, ten-inch frame, and plopped into his easy chair. It swung back with only the slightest push of one heel, as if it knew instinctively he wanted to lay supine.”

    I know it’s rather detailed, but I want to give the reader an accurate description of both the protagonist and his actions at that moment. It’s early on in the story, so this is the first time the reader is introduced to him. Would it be better to say this instead?

    “He ran his fingers through his hair and stood slowly, his knee joints creaking as if he was an old man. He wandered into the den, shrugging his broad shoulders, and plopped into his easy chair. It swung back with only the slightest push, as if it knew instinctively he wanted to lay supine.”

    1. The next posts will be discussing more with examples on how to decide how much detail to give. It will be focusing in on the use of specific camera angles, and why to choose these shots. Much of the time writers want a close-up to see certain details, but I’ll be discussing just how much you need and how to choose them so as to bring out character and advance the plot. too much is just too much, but not enough or details that are unhelpful are also a problem.

      1. Suzanne,

        Thanks for starting this blog. Showing rather than telling is something with which I struggle. The jury appears to have voted for the 2nd description of De La Garza’s excerpt. My vote, however, is for the first paragraph. I definitely could “see” the character.
        Suzanne, I noticed you did not comment on this. Which is your preference?
        I would be interested in reading more about how much detail is too much and when to cut. I believe my problem is leaving too much out and assuming the reader can “see” it as well as I do.

    2. @ De La Garza. Second is better. It shows enough detail and let’s you get on with the action without slowing the reader down.

    3. Alejandro, I like the second version better because it doesn’t get bogged down…it keeps flowing. You can show his musculature and height in other ways in your story without giving the specific details.

    4. It seems to me that something really does have to be happening for this to be effective. It is my opinion that you give far too much detail when you could just say “He plopped down into the chair.” Maybe there is a better time or place to introduce the main character, a time when something is at stake, when something important is happening.
      It is my understanding that you “tell” when the details aren’t important and you “show” when the details are extremely important, in terms of character development, story and building suspense.
      Of course, I could be wrong. I still haven’t had any takers for my ms.

  4. Suzanne, you raise questions about that old mantra that I have often raised myself. And I was interested in the comments left so far for I have felt the same way. It doesn’t help when I am reading well known and oft-published authors who totally ignore this show-don’t-tell philosophy.
    I look forward to your coming series and am glad I caught this introduction to it. Well done!

    1. Thanks, this will go deeper with examples. The whole idea is to get lots of great tools in your writers toolbox so that when you want a specific effect or result, you have a technique you can use that will be just right.

  5. As you describe this type of writing to you blog reading audience,it would be good to give them an overview or table of contents, so that our comments don’t run in another direction.

    It occurred to me that “Show” has other depths to its use. The analogy of cinema scene shots is good. Steps of scene development to create a bridge or climax from one scene to the next are details you have left to some future blog. We need to know that the superficial is not going to happen in following along. I would say to people who have trouble with the cinema approach, is you’re looking at a basic approach to construction (place the nail here), then it is up to your writing ability to improve the reader. Is it the reader’s fault or the writers’ that we have come to this lack of ability to understand. I think it was all a plot. 🙂

  6. I have always thought the “Show – Don’t tell” to be one of the most useless of all the advice you can give someone. The vast majority of people cannot explain how to do it to the ones who do not understand it. The ones that understand it do it almost automatically.

    I admit we all need a reminder once in awhile but for the newbie in the writer’s world it doesn’t help much. It’s about the equivalent of saying “Whatever you do, don’t equeralbvt!”


  7. I’m with Larry. Over and over again I read anodyne novels and stories where the writing has been pared back to a minimum and I end up bored, empty and unstimulated. Most modern novels seem to be this way now – it’s the Creative Writing School style and just seems to produce sausage-like mass-market identikit pages of words. I don’t want everything I read to sound the same. I want DH Lawrence’s depth, Dicken’s verbiage, Lawrence Durrell’s lush ellipses, Joyce’s endless sentences, Woolf’s meandering thoughts… individuality as unique as these different writers’ responses and understandings and evocations of the worlds they lived in. What will we leave as a legacy now if everyone writes the same, and in simple baby style?

    Having said that, I think the film analogy is a good one. But let’s not make all our writings into Hollywood blockbusters. Don’t forget the Indie movie market out there. There are different film styles. There are different genres and cinematic languages. Let’s keep the richness of prose as rich as the richness of cinema the world over.

    1. Yes, well said. And I do believe, just as in film, you can apply interesting and varied cinematic technique into some scenes in a novel for greater effect. It doesn’t mean you sacrifice voice or art, nor does it mean you need to use camera shots in every scene. But there are some scenes that will really benefit from cinematic technique, and too many writers use way too much narrative and exposition for the reason that they don’t know how to write well. Their novels read like synopses and summaries. Since I edit and critique hundreds of manuscripts, I see this as a huge problem, and so helping writers take more of a cinematic approach aids them in shifting the way they look at scene construction and how they reveal the high moment of each scene.

  8. And can I just add I’m looking forward to more blogs in this series! I shall try applying the techniques to the work I am writing at the moment and I can already tell they will help.

  9. What a great article followed by even better comments. I believe good writing has a mix of show and tell depending on the genre or plot and the POV. If you are writing genre fiction, especially YA, then your cinematic comparison is right on the mark. If you are writing more of a literary novel that is primarily for adults then there is definitely room for both types of prose.
    Rebecca, I completely agree with you that I pick up different novels and authors because I also want variety in what I read. Sometimes my brain craves the poetic, dark flow of a Toni Morrison novel, and sometimes I just want to devour a good story that plays out like a movie in my head ala Larsson’s, The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo.

  10. While I find this post helpful in its practicality, I also agree with Larry. I can see how my writing benefits from learning to show more than tell, and I also miss the true literary genius that used to sweep us into a novel as if into another world without the current “restrictions” of what is acceptable or simply accepted because our world can’t read a sentence over seven words. Granted, many authors still write with a prowess that captures us. Thank goodness! I suppose it challenges us as authors to work literary magic within the confines of an vastly ignorant literary world! Thanks for the encouraging comments everyone, and for helping us think about a new world of writing, Suzanne.

  11. So we have the well-written approach by C.S. Lakin, and the opposing view by Larry, and numerous views in between. The question I have: Can one follow C.S. Lakin’s method of show-don’t-tell, yet have the rich writing that Larry mentions? Laura Bennet thinks it may be possible. Does anyone have book suggestions that are both in one?

  12. On the whole, evoking a situation is far more challenging and geing longer than a description, requires more imagination and a sensitive word choices and demands an activation of the reader’s own visual and emotional faculties if properly done. As far as knowing when to stop. Doesn’t that rather depend on the importance of what’s being conveyed? Is the particular phrase doesn’t add anything to the whole, doesn’t convey something about your character or situation, delete it.

  13. I am looking forward to following these blog posts. I have been told on different occasions by readers that my writing is very visual, which I take as a compliment. I have felt that this refers to my efforts to ‘show’ a scene. As I write, I find I very often think in terms of a film camera, imagining wide panoramic shots, sweeps and close ups etc. This isn’t intentional, it just seems to be the way it is for me – and I have heard plenty of other writers say the same.

    Having said that, I tend to write YA genre stuff – so perhaps I’m drawn to that genre because of my approach.

    Judith Mehl asks ‘Does anyone have book suggestions that are both in one?’ No doubt we’ll all have varying opinions, but for me the likes of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake could very nicely fit into both. But then again, I feel, any great writing/writer should!

    On another note, when I recently met with the editor for my latest WIP (a highly experienced man who used to be a senior editor at a large pub house), he happened to remark that, in his experience, male writers more often tended to ‘tell’ and female writers ‘show’. Just thought I’d share that, for what it’s worth.

    1. I feel good books are a nice combination of showing and telling. I’ll be giving lots of examples throughout the year showing excerpts. There are times, of course, when you need to “tell.” If you want to indicate some time has passed, you don’t need to show a clock’s hands (remember those?) zooming in orbits across the clock’s face. You can just say “three hours later.” But the telling should be short and serve a specific purpose (like getting a character from one location to another). Same with flashback and memory–little bits added here and there can be narrative that tells information but the key is to keep the reader in the present action of the scene. It’s tricky, and I’ll go into the fine art of handling two cameras at once–the one watching what the character is doing and the other that is rolling in the character’s head. No wonder novel writing is hard!

  14. Hi Susanne,

    Thanks so much for the post. It’s funny, I didn’t think about this aspect of writing for my novel and I’ve received a number of comments from readers (and my editor) that they feel like they are in my story with the characters, so I guess that’s good=), but now that I have thought about it, my question is: should I be trying to “show and not tell” in sequels as well? I seem to naturally want to use a camera when I create scenes and exposition (as well as using occasional auditory-sensory descriptions) but I’m now worrying that I should come up with another way to describe what a character’s feelings are other than stating them in some way during internal dialogue. Perhaps, now that I’m thinking academically about this subject, I’m going a bit nuts over it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. I looked at a couple of books and they occasionally “tell” in the sequels, so hopefully that is an exception.

    1. I don’t see why a sequel would be an exception. Why would readers suddenly desire to be told everything in a second book. I also find it poor writing to sum up everything at the end of the novel and explain all the things they didn’t get explained (Harry Potter books a great example). In a sequel there may be a bit of telling to catch the reader up to speed on what happened in the first book, but a good writer will do it well and not give an info dump. A character can be in present action thinking about something that had happened to give that info.

  15. Long before films were around, great scene-writers have stripped down Life and put it back together in tidy (horribly complex) equations. A (characters) + B (trouble) = C (all Hell breaks loose)

    Simply being observant of behavior and interaction, and writing it recognizably, will create an emotional bond of familiarity with your reader. No matter the subject! Even something as simple as battling one’s shyness to cross the room of a party.

    ‘On entering the room, [Mr. Bingley] seemed to hesitate; but Jane happened to look round, and happened to smile: it was decided. He placed himself beside her.’ — “Pride & Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

    As for Show vs Tell, I prefer reading a balance of both. All of one and none of the other ends up boring me. I want to know what is happening, what it feels like, what it looks like–but I don’t want to find myself praying for the end of a paragraph. I’m talking to you, Lucy Maud Montgomery! Thank God for Kevin Sullivan…

  16. This is one of the most interesting series on one topic I’ve seen. I heard the phrase often, and I think I’ve unconsciously absorbed it. In my writing, it’s mostly through dialogue and interior monologue (another controversial subject). The French Novelle Vogue movement of the 70s used present tense almost photgraphic scenes (“Jalousie” by Alain Robbe-Grillet). It confused me until I realized what he was doing. If the writer can picture it vividly and put it on paper, the reader should be able to see the scene. (Re-reading my comment, I see I haven’t added much to the discussion. Still, I’ll submit it for what it’s worth. Have I shown anything or just told?)

  17. The stories that own me are seamless blends of show and tell, leaving me with no cognitive recognition of when the author moved from one device to another.

    To be that kind of writer . . .

  18. I, too, was taught “show — don’t tell!” And I like this article. However, when it comes to saying that doing this makes a book more successful, I have to take issue. It certainly make the WRITING better. But I suggest that you pick up a copy one of Dan Brown’s outrageously successful, best-selling novels — “Angels and Demons” or “The Da Vinci Code” will do. They are THE WORST-WRITTEN CRAPOLA ever. Brown never uses one modifier/adjective if he can use — oh, six. And, why show what a character is feeling when you can tell it – and use every hackneyed hideous cliche you can think of in doing it. We’re talking about how her black eyes that flashed with anger…

    I’m serious — I actually typed up a section from “Angels and Demons” that was about 6 paragraphs long and sent it to a friend of mine (a lifelong writer, working on a novel) and said “you have to read this – it’s my pick for this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Prize…” And he called me to say he couldn’t stop laughing, it was so awful and where did I find it? And I said – you can find it on any bookstore, it’s sold MILLIONS of copies! So depressing.

    1. Such is the bane for authors who really want to write great books. There is no figuring why so many horrible books make the best-seller lists and why so many great ones just don’t get noticed. Life in the book publishing lane is a mystery.

  19. Great food for thought, Suzanne. I just had my first book release on Jan. 8, 2013. After I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I sent it in to my publishing editor and one of the first things she explained to me was the “show – don’t tell” concept. One of your commentors on this post, a Duke Davis, wrote, and I quote…”I admit we all need a reminder once in awhile but for the newbie in the writer’s world it doesn’t help much.”

    I did a second draft, using the “show – don’t tell” mentality. And as I mentioned, this was my first try at writing a novel. What a difference it made. I have had people who read my book tell me that they just loved it. While reading “Tip of the Iceberg”, they said they felt as if they were right there with the characters in the scene.

    So Duke’s comment about it not being for newbies, is not true. Maybe it’s not for EVERY new writer, but for this writer, it worked.

    Look forward to following your blog.

  20. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Swedish film director the late Ingmar Bergman. One of his movies “Cries and Whispers” sets the scene of the story in the first fifteen minutes without a single word of dialogue. This resonated in my mind when i read your comments above. I now fully understand what “Show don’t tell” means. Thank you for your help

  21. I dislike all stories which show instead of telling, and can’t be dissuaded from telling instead of showing.

    1. How’s that working for you in the books you write? Do your readers also enjoy being told the story instead of being immersed in it? Novels in days past used to be mostly narrative, and some are terrific books. Each person has his own taste.

  22. If they do not approve of my style, they are no longer my readers and leave me with the few worthy ones.

    I follow the examples of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Henry Fielding and William Makepeace Thackeray.

  23. All of my first drafts are littered with “tell” and very little “show”. Second time around, I am constantly asking myself how is the character being whatever the emotion is, or how is the scene the way it is.

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