Dark Doors

Ask. I will tell you a story.

Show, not Tell

So many times, I have told my students, “show, don’t tell” in their writing. To create a picture for their reader that engages and makes their writing interesting.

Only now, during the editing and rewriting of my NaNoNovel, do I realise how difficult that task actually is.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it (I tend to do that), but doesn’t “showing” amount to just a fancy way of “telling”? And that thought makes me freeze in my words.

Bear with me while I work this through.

Rather than tell, “it’s windy today”, I could instead show, “the chill breeze tousled her hair, dragging strands of it across her face”. But is that “showing” enough? Should I report her reaction? “With an annoyed huff, she pulled her hair back into a ponytail.” Or would “She impatiently wrestled her hair into a ponytail to keep it tame from the winds” be better?

Aren’t I still just “telling” you everything? Which one engages the reader more? Which one develops character as well as “shows”? When do I stop? When do I keep going? Am I relying solely on connotation and vocabulary choice to suggest different moods? Is it okay to “tell” in some circumstances?

I know I should know better than this, but today seems to be marked by self-doubt in my skills as a writer. It could be something to do with reading a sub-standard book for the past week. (I couldn’t stop myself – I had to see if it was consistently bad throughout. It was.) Now I know that I imitate the writer I’m reading, whether subconsciously or by design, so I’m terrified that everything I have edited this week has suffered under the influence of this badly-written book. I am questioning every word I change, every phrase I alter – is this better? Is is worse?

And now the internal struggle over “Show, not Tell” rears its ugly head, howling for my writer’s blood. Can someone hand me a sword with which I might slay this beast? No, that one. I’m telling you… Okay, it’s the long, shiny, pointy thing lying on the aged oak table. Over there. There!

You see my dilemma, yes? But did I “tell” you or did I “show” you?



  1. Show not Tell….I have to remember that πŸ™‚

  2. Arrggh! I have so been there throughout the last three weeks of Jan, editing my work & sweating on every word. I’ve concluded that you have to trust yourself first & foremost to know when to curtail it with the showing. Showing to me is all about doing, the writing equivalent of ‘actions speak louder than words’. In the show example above, the reader learns about the character based on how she reacts to the wind. You’ve communicated she has long hair, doesn’t wear a hat and carries a hair band. You’ve also communicated inclement weather. If the weather is important to the plot, show. If there’s character building to be done as a consequence of the weather, show.

    When I hit 42 I found myself in a very confused place and I didn’t know where I fit in any more. I decided to study NLP, which taught me all about unconscious communications and how 75% of all communication is non-verbal. I think this is essentially what show is trying to get at – communicating things about a character or situation that resonate directly with the unconscious mind of the reader.

    Currently going through the ‘why am I wasting my time, I’ll never get this effing writing thing nailed’ cloud of despair, despite the fact that writing, albeit reports, is what has put food on’table for the last 20 years!

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