Show, don’t tell (SDT). It’s one of the few consistent pieces of advice that all writers have heard at one time or another. Even the most amateur of writers parrot it back, but knowing the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand it, or how to implement it.
So what does “Show, don’t tell.” really mean? SDT is the idea that instead of telling your readers what’s happening in a story, you show them. This seems like an abstract concept to most of us, but what it boils down to is this: using words to give your readers an idea without having to directly state it. There are many ways good writers do this. It can be as simple as adding a scene for when your character walks down the street to the corner market rather than saying “she went to the store.” but it can also be as complicated as weaving subtext into dialogue and editing entire character personalities to prove a point down the line. I want to look at two examples to try and get this point across in a way that will sink in for you. My goal? To make you really think about SDT and what it means, and how you can implement it in your writing.
My first idea I want you to consider is:
1. Convince your reader of your point by putting them in the character’s shoes.
For example, let’s say I have a character who needs to make a tough decision. I could simply say:
It was a tough decision.
Sure–but it’s not convincing. The reader may say “okay.. so it was a tough decision.” but it’s not going to resonate with them. It doesn’t draw the reader into my story. Why should they care? If I were to take the concept of SDT and implement it, the correct course of action would be to put the reader in my character’s shoes. Instead of telling the reader it was a tough decision, how could I make them waffle over the decision as well?
Let’s say the tough decision was the choice in a love triangle. I know, I know, there are some of you rolling your eyes right now, and that’s probably because more often than not, you’ve run across a book that had a love triangle in it and it seemed like a convenient plot device. That’s probably because the author did a whole lot of telling rather than showing. So humor me. Instead of having just the character waffle over the decision between the two love interests, it is your duty as a writer (yes I really said duty) to make your reader waffle too. You want to get your readers so engrossed in the story that they don’t care how tired the trope of a love triangle is. How do you do that?
Show your readers why your character wants to waffle. Make the love interests so equally loveable that even your reader has a hard time choosing between the two. That means they both need to have equal part bad to their good and they must be equal to each other. Putting your reader into your character’s shoes is one of the most involved and complicated ways of “showing” but it’s good –no–great writing. It’s hard, because you have to really convince your reader that both the people in this triangle are worth loving, and no, you can’t just say “this guy was really sweet and funny, and the other guy was really sexy and deep”. I’d need to show those traits consistently throughout the story so that I never have to “tell” my reader why they’re both a valid choice. It should be a no-brainer why my character waffled over the decision.
This also applies to describing your main character’s personality. Instead of saying “she was beautiful, shallow, and none-to-bright.” Find ways to prove those points to us. Show an instance where she’s shallow or where her beauty is brought up (like a character that glances at her and then walks into a pole). Show us how dumb she is with her dialogue and actions.
2. Another example of SDT (and perhaps easier to grasp) is the use of subtext to show emotion. The idea behind this is that you should never have to explain how your character feels, their actions and words should show it clearly enough that it never be said.
For example, I’ll take a 1st draft (short) scene from one of my own stories. Yup, I’m throwing myself under the bus. It reads like this:
“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness with a tired note to my voice and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face to calm her.
Mahir’s awkward thumping footfall approached to my left, and he collapsed onto the flat rock beside Sadia.”What?” he asked in a tired, gravelly voice.
“Give me your cloth.” I ordered, motioning it. I could barely see his face in the creeping dark, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me in nervous reluctance. “Just give it here. No one here cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist.
The pain of our feet scraped raw had been our constant companion for the last several hours. Even Mahir was past caring. A low warning growl sounded from behind me, but I ignored it as I tiredly tore Mahir’s loin cloth into strips and begin to bind his feet.
“What about you?” Mahir asked quietly in the dark, a note of concern to his voice. His eyes were focused on something behind me, but I ignored it and kept at my work.
“I’m fine.” I waved off his concern.
“Khet-” he started.
“There’s nothing to be done about it!” I nearly shouted, and Mahir grew quiet. The shrill sound of my voice echoed off the rocks in the dark. “Help your sister to walk.”
It’s not god-awful, but it’s not great either. Now let’s look at the same scene with SDT applied:
“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness, wincing at the falter in my voice. It’d been hours since we’d left the village and my tongue felt like wet clay in my mouth. I cleared my throat and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face. Her small shoulders relaxed, and she leaned against my chest, her sweat-beaded forehead sticking to my skin.
Mahir’s footsteps thumped in an uneven gait from my left, then he collapsed onto the flat rock to the other side of Sadia.”What?” His voice was like gravel crunching under foot, and the skin of his lips had begun to flake off in dry bits.
“Give me your cloth.” I motioned for it, my arm awkwardly swinging out in his direction before falling back to my side. I could barely see his face in the pale light of the moon, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me for a moment, his half-lidded gaze zeroed in on my face. I fought the urge to swallow against the pasty feeling at the back of my throat. “Just give it here. No one cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”
He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist. He held his feet a few scant millimeter’s from the gravel around us, careful not to set them down even as he worked.A low warning growl rumbled behind me, but I ignored it as I tore the loin cloth into strips and began to wrap them tightly around Mahir’s feet.
“What about you?” Mahir’s gaze flicked down to my feet. Even in the dark, the wetness on the gravel beneath them was evident.
“There’s nothing to be done about it!”. Mahir tensed, and I let out a long breath, purposefully unclenching my hands. The shrill tone of my voice resonated among the rocks around us, and only when the air was still again did I speak. “Help your sister to walk.”
Obviously, the basics of the scene are the same. What changed was the way I elaborated on the scene by “showing” my readers the emotions and subtext of what was happening. I didn’t need to say that they were tired, thirsty, or in pain, but I guarantee you that my reader understood that. I never had to say that the siblings were concerned for one another, or relieved to be off their feet. Go ahead, look back and see if you can find any of these words: tired, thirsty, pain, exhausted, concerned, or relieved. You won’t find them in the second scene. This is the essence of SDT; to use the narrative and dialogue to present the idea that your character is tired (for instance) without ever having to use the word “tired”. Your readers don’t need to be told how to feel about a scene if you just let them feel it. Put them there in that moment and quit “telling” them about it.
“Show, don’t tell.” is the simplest phrase to parrot out as advice, but the real concept behind it isn’t easy. It’s work. It takes planning and sometimes it can be difficult to spot places where it should be used. Don’t let this discourage you. Hopefully by the end of this article I’ve given you something to think about it, and maybe–just maybe–I’ve given you a better understanding of what SDT really means. The next time you approach an author or a struggling-writer with the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” help them out. Explain it to them. Link them to this article. Parroting the phrase isn’t helpful if the person receiving it doesn’t know what it means. Cut them some slack and give them a helping hand up… we all need one sometimes.
P.S. The text examples used in this article are from Khet, an original Fantasy novel by moi. You can find the first (unedited) chapter posted as an excerpt under the “My Unpublished Writing” category over on the right hand side of this blog. The bits used here are from the second chapter.