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Show and Don't Tell

Updated: Apr 30

Using sensory details to paint a picture in your reader's mind.

A woman at a laptop.

Show don't tell.


If you’re a writer then you've probably heard this sage piece of advice repeated over and over again. But what exactly does this phrase mean and why is it so important for storytelling? Let’s take a deep dive and explore this topic.


SHOWING

In a literary sense, showing is delivering story information, but in a way that evokes emotion. It is a method of storytelling that puts the reader in the room or even in the shoes of the characters and gives them a bird’s eye view.


TELLING

Telling also gives information about the story. It could be a concise delivery of a sentence or pontificated on for pages and pages. No matter the length, telling is simply reporting what is happening without feeling or depth.


So why don’t we want to simply tell?


Telling can seem flat and lifeless, which makes it difficult for readers who want to escape into a story and connect with characters. If too much telling is used, the storyteller risks losing the reader's attention.


Think pages of monotonous passages. Can you remember reading a book that you just couldn't "get into?" The author was probably doing too much telling and not enough showing. Telling is boring and makes focusing difficult. The reader is more likely to put the book down and not pick it back up. And worse yet, give a bad review or unsavory word of mouth.


On the other hand, showing keeps the reader engaged through description, emotional pull and full use of the senses. Take this case study from Sierra Kay’s At the Touch of Love as the main character, Echo, waxes nostalgic on the dichotomy of her birthday and the anniversary of her parent’s death:


“While her parents were probably screaming at the drunk driver speeding towards their car, she was laughing at her roommate's jokes. While her parents' black Saab crumbled under the impact of a blue Cadillac, she was shaking her ass to the sounds of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" blasting from the apartment stereo. While her dad ricocheted in the interior and her mom was thrown out of the window to land on the concrete yards away, Echo had kissed a boy she didn't really like. She merely thought he was kind of cute.”


In one impactful paragraph the reader simultaneously experience’s a car wreck, a party {you can hear the Purple One crooning on Crazy}, and deep grief all by showing. The story goes on:


“When she received the call, she passed clear out. When that call came through, the voice on the other end spoke to dead air. The world had faded out of focus and she opened her eyes as someone picked her up from the floor. She didn't remember what the caller said. They were gone—just like that. What only child survives something so tragic? If loneliness doesn't make a person check out on life, guilt surely will.”


The sorrow and guilt is palpable. You can feel the what ifs and how comes swallowing Echo whole and as if they are happening directly to you. As a reader you want to know more about Echo. You keep reading to know how she survived the tragedy and moved forward or if she even could. The reader is moved forward by the showing of the scene.


“When an author shows, the reader becomes more involved in the journey and they are less likely to scan the pages. They want to be in the moment with the characters,” author Sierra Kay said. She’s penned six novels all with the show don’t tell philosophy in mind.


Kay says by using the show don’t tell method, she is able to center herself in the story’s experience, making her writing richer, less formula-driven and more meaningful. “Showing breathes life into the story. Page numbers and word count don’t matter when a writer is engaged with their story in this way.”


Showing breathes life into the story.


Showing uses the senses to stir the spirit. “Showing is setting a character in the middle of a room and describing what is happening to her,” Kay said.


So how can you use the senses to transform a scene? Consider these prompts.

  1. SIGHT - What are the characters seeing? Is it shocking, loving, tender or tough?

  2. SMELL - What scents are impacting the scene? Are the lilacs in full bloom as the lovers stroll toward their demise?

  3. HEAR - What do they hear? Is it Prince or Harry Belafonte? Is it a train coming down the line or a doorbell? A shotgun? A whisper?

  4. TASTE - What is heard? Is it a warm chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven or the metallic taste of blood?

  5. TOUCH - What is being felt? Is it cashmere, sandpaper, a velvety bloom or a knife slicing through skin? Deep love? Or jealousy so toxic you can see the pages turn green?

Are you a writer? How has showing transformed your writing?


Click the hashtag for more #writingtips


Follow Sierra Kay down the modern fairy tale rabbit hole by visiting her book library here.


Sierra Kay novels.


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