• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

How to Show Not Tell

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description

Tracy Culleton

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This is possibly the number one rule for writing! The most common mistake new (and some older) writers make is telling a story rather than showing.

  • Showing paints the pictures in the reader’s mind – it engages them and involves them in the story. Telling merely informs; it’s flat, it doesn’t resonate with the reader, doesn’t stay in their memory.
  • It is a fine balance – telling is necessary sometimes – too much showing would be wearying.
  • Telling is great for first drafts – you can change it to showing on the rewrite.
  • Showing almost always involves action, which readers love, and dialogue.
  • Use the five senses to show us what your characters are experiencing and we’ll see the scene through their eyes – can they hear heavy rain or smell newly mown grass? As Anton Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
  • Showing takes more words (see the example below) –  this can be handy if you are struggling to increase your word count!
  • Showing is harder work, forcing you as the writer to visualise the scene in detail in order to write about it. If you’re working hard, your writing is better.
  • Big chunks of description slows the story down, takes away from the forward movement of the plot – and readers don’t like that. A Bad Thing!

An example of telling: Sandra was tired.

Showing: Sandra’s steps slowed, and finally stopped. She put a hand to her brow, and massaged it. She sighed and with an effort, straightened her shoulders.

Don’t you have a much clearer picture in the second example?

Using the active voice, showing becomes much less of a challenge.

The passive voice is: “The wine was drunk.”

The active voice would be: “Mary drank the wine”

The passive voice tends to have ‘be’, ‘is’, or ‘was’ in the sentence. (Not that every sentence with those words is passive, but all sentences with those words should be checked to see if they can be written more actively.)

Active words – always verbs – engage the reader, draw them into the story put them in the core of the action. The active voice involves your reader, and this is, of course, A Good Thing. An involved reader will keep reading, and as a writer, this is your constant challenge. As Elmore Leonard famously said ‘Try to leave out the parts people tend to skip.’

The passive voice also lends itself more to telling-not-showing, and rooting out those passive sentences is a good way of avoiding telling. So: “He was angry,” (note the word ‘was’) would be better written as something like: “He clenched his fists, tightened his lips and narrowed his eyes”.

About the author

(c) Tracy Culleton

Tracy Culleton runs the www.fiction-writers-mentor.com, and works extensively for Inkwell Writers Workshops, facilitating the hugely popular online workshop Write That Book that has taken many authors from blank page to finished manuscript.

Born in Dublin in 1964, she has been writing all her life, but began her professional writing career in 2002 with the non-fiction book Simply Vegetarian’. Her fiction career began when she won the 2003 ‘Write A Bestseller’ Competition jointly run by Poolbeg and RTE’s Open House. This winning novel, Looking Good’, went on to spend three weeks in the top ten. Loving Lucy’ was published in 2004 and ‘More Than Friends’ in 2005.

Tracy has extensive experience in adult education, having worked with NALA as an adult literacy tutor. Tracy is an expert in EFL and has a special interest in the reasons for, and the cures for, writer’s block. She has written a non fiction book on the subject, available as a free e-Book on her website www.fiction-writers-mentor.com.

  • allianceindependentauthors.org
  • www.designforwriters.com

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