How "Show Don't Tell" Actually Works I Oxford Open Learning

    Show don't tell

    How “Show Don’t Tell” Actually Works

    Show Don’t Tell is a technique used in pretty much every form of creative writing. It is a skill that once mastered will take your writing to the next level. It’s a way of allowing your readers to experience your writing through actions, thoughts, feelings and the five senses, as opposed to just rambling off a lengthy and unengaging factual explanation. People read fiction to get away from the real world and to experience something different. This is commonly known as escapism, when you want to get away from the humdrum of school and work and have a much more entertaining time in Middle Earth or on some futuristic space station. Good writers show these details through actions, thoughts and feelings in order to make their stories more engaging. Read on to find out just how they (and you) can do that.

    Of course, Show don’t Tell is not a tool that needs to be used all the time, there are plenty of occasions to simply tell, such as long passages of time. It’s hard to show that without clogging up the word count and slowing down the pace of your story. So how do you show instead of tell? Here are three key aspects of storytelling and how best to demonstrate them: emotions, dialogue and setting.

    Showing Emotions

    When someone is mad at you they don’t usually say, “Oh, I’m really angry at you now,” because that would be telling. So how do you know that they’re mad? You see the signs—not in what they say but how they say it and the change in their body language. Their eyes might narrow, their lips may thin or their jaw clench. Their voice may take on a different, colder, or harsher tone, they may raise their voice. Their hands may close into fists, their posture might suddenly stiffen. These are all signs that somebody’s angry—all different ways that you can show it. People don’t go around announcing their emotions to people in real life, we learn to notice these signs, so if in your narrative you write that Susan was really sad, the reader isn’t engaged because there’s nothing to make their brain work. However, if you say that Susan’s bottom lip started to tremble, or that she had to blink away tears, your reader can infer from that information that she’s sad. It doesn’t sound like much but these are the little things that keep your audience engaged.


    Yes, it can seem a little bit counter-intuitive to mention dialogue here, and you might be wondering how to show when a character is literally telling somebody something when they’re speaking.
    Dialogue is one of the most effective ways to show something in a story, as it not only drives the plot forward but is a great tool for revealing character. The words we choose to say and how we say them speak volumes about us, so it is vitally important you think about the words that your characters will use.

    One of the best examples of this is from the 1964 film Goldfinger. Secret agent James Bond is at the mercy of the villain, Goldfinger, when there is this wonderful exchange which on the surface looks like a terrible example of telling rather than showing:

    Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
    Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

    Context is everything here. Bond is strapped to a table with a laser set to kill him and the villain seems to be simply stating what the audience is expecting to happen. But if you think about what the two of them are saying, it reveals what kind of people they are. Bond looks like he has no way out, and his words show that even faced with death he will not betray his country, will remain defiant, and appears to be every bit of the hero he’s been so far in the film. Goldfinger on the other hand, solidifies his presence as the villain as his choice of words shows his callous dispassion and nonchalance at the fact he is about to disintegrate another human being. Of course, your writing doesn’t need to be quite as dynamic and dramatic as this, but it just shows how much your audience can pick up from a couple of lines of dialogue, so don’t be afraid to use it!

    You may wonder how can you make your characters stand out from each other. Think about the ways they talk. Think about the slang, contractions and vocabulary they might use and how they can give clues as to your character’s background and intelligence. For example, a school student will use certain slang words like ‘rizz’, which you wouldn’t likely hear from someone much older. Considerations like this are how you show (and don’t tell!) that your characters are unique and memorable.

    Description and Setting

    Instead of writing lengthy passages of description to ‘set the scene’, effective storytellers weave this description into the action of their stories. Not only are you showing the world but you’re also driving the story forward and not boring your readers with paragraphs about trees. For example…

    Snow crunched underfoot.

    What can you infer from this? That it’s snowing and therefore likely winter, as well as the fact that the characters are walking toward something. Little details like this go a long way and allow your readers to paint the rest of the picture. You don’t need to spell it out, just leave clues for the reader to piece the picture together.

    All these things may sound simple, but as is often the way, it’s easier said than done. With practice, though, you’ll only become more adept. And the best way to supplement practice is to also read plenty, to see how other writers do it. Now go put some ‘rizz’ into that writing! See, sounds weird, doesn’t it?


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