Show and Tell in Writing

If you submit your creative writing for critiquing, you’ll quickly become familiar with the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.”

According to the modern critiquer, “telling” is an unspeakably evil act in the realm of creative writing. You must never tell. Always show.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, showing is more interesting for the reader. On the other, well… Imagine if you had, back in kindergarten, had “show” instead of “show and tell.” Imagine each child holding up a random ass item, allowing the other children to stare at it for a length of time, then wordlessly returning to their seat.

There is room in the world for show and tell, and both are important. I don’t see a need to show everything, but this is where my stance on the matter shifts.

Showing is so much better.

Showing happens in verbs. With action.

Back to the (embarrassingly literal) hypothetical children:

A boy has a toy firetruck he brings for show and tell.

“It lights up, makes a siren noise, and drives forward,” he says, then sits back down.

Wouldn’t that have been more interesting if he’d shown the other children what the toy did, rather than telling them?

It’s, the apple was too ripe v.s. the apple turned to a sweet grit in my mouth.

It’s, her ass was gigantic v.s. her cheeks undulated like jello on a bass speaker with every step.

It’s, the pan was burned my hand v.s. my skin hissed when I touched the pan.

Showing is richer, more fulfilling. But it is not always necessary to create such a strong image. For example, it is perfectly fine to say “the car was bright red.” No need to expand upon its exact shade. No need to bog the reader down with minutiae. No need for, “Shades of crimson painted the vehicle, which matched the deep ruby of a cow’s tongue.”

When it comes to pleasing critiquers and writing more interesting sentences, simply ask yourself: Where is the action? What is the verb? Is it a good verb? Then, does this sentence deserve a good verb, or will a bland one do?


7 thoughts on “Show and Tell in Writing

  1. Excellent post. Thank you for this, it’s good to be reminded. Now, I’ve always though that ‘show don’t tell’ rule refers to emotional states and stakes, rather than actual actions. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      I think there’s an opportunity to “show” actions, too.

      For example, when we say “Sally headed toward the buffet line,” we don’t know how she feels. How she gets there. Nothing about her personality.

      As opposed to, “Sally beelined for the buffet line,” or, “Sally trudged to the buffet line.”

      These are actions, but when they’re shown rather than told, we get a better grasp of the character’s personality, and a more vivid image.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. lol omg. I suddenly want to sit on a bass speaker to see if my ass will undulate. I can’t be the only one! Seriously though, very good advice here. As one who needs to fine tune her writing, I’ll be looking forward to new posts from you!


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