Detailed Explanation of the “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule

By Nicholas Klacsanzky

Whichever websites dedicated to writing you have visited, you probably saw this annoying and omnipresent reminder: “Show, do not tell”. Everyone keeps indulging into arguments about how important it is to describe a scene instead of simply naming it. However, many such advisers forget about one simple thing: this rule does not refer to only visual descriptions, but rather to everything one writes about.

How’s that? For example, you describe an interaction between two people, which words will you operate with to describe what your characters said or felt? Usually, writers use cliches like, “he said,” “she wondered,” “he asked,” “she thought,” and so on. There is nothing wrong in using them, but at the same time it goes against the “show, don’t tell” rule.

Why? Because you do not bother yourself by trying to convey the mental state of your character–you just name it instead. Even when you don’t say “She felt sad,” you would instead write something like, “She felt that tears were about to burst from her eyes,” wouldn’t you? But it is still not a proper description. It’s more like a detailed comment on what was happening to a female character, but it says nothing about her feelings. It’s just a fact: “She was about to cry.” Okay, so what?

You create no emotional engagement this way. “He looked at her dancing with that coxcomb and felt like something was boiling in his guts” (I ran into this description when reading a short story, a while ago). I can understand that this description probably refers to jealousy or anger, but it sounds more like the author was talking about indigestion. Instead, one could write, “…His face remained calm as he watched her dance with that coxcomb, but I could hear the crunch of knuckles as his fists clenched.” It’s still trivial, but it refers to something men subconsciously do when frustrated or angry–clenching fists, punching walls, and so on–and what can be intuitively understood by readers.

Instead of, “She wondered whether he would call her again,” write something like, “The last time he asked her out, everything seemed to twirl fast. Three weeks after, her heart would still bounce every time she occasionally looked at the phone–but there was not a single call from him ever since.”

Every time you feel a temptation to say something directly, create a bypass instead. Writing is not a matter to rush–you don’t have to be quick; take your time, write a couple more sentences, use a synonym. Think about what your character would feel when committing an action, and describe this feeling, not an action itself. A simple “he said uncertainly” can be expanded to “he said rather loudly, but his eyes jumped from one face to another, as if in search of confirmation of his words.” Every verb or noun you use is like a ZIP archive that you can unpack, making twenty words out of one. Sometimes it is excessive, but whenever you need to create a certain mood, it is better to create a bypass rather than a shortcut. Keep this in mind, and your writing will gradually become better. Good luck!


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