How to Write Convincing Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing fiction is like trying to convince someone you're cool. As in, the best tactic might not be to walk up to the person and say, "Hello, I'm super-cool." No, instead, you'd choose cool clothes. You'd show up with cool-looking friends and make sure they mention cool things you've done. You'll seem a lot cooler to someone who thinks she's discovered your coolness for herself.

How does this apply to fiction? If you tell a reader something, the reader has to take your word for it. But if you show it to the reader, then the impact is a lot more powerful.

The difference between telling and showing

Example of telling:

* Lois was a horribly messy person.

Example of showing:

* “Hey, there's my sandwich!" Lois exclaimed triumphantly, spying yesterday's meatball sub protruding from the heap of dirty laundry on the backseat of her car.

What if, instead of messy, Lois were compulsively neat? Think about how you could show that. What does a compulsively neat person do? (I know someone who organizes her kitchen cabinets in perfect rows, measuring the exact space between the items with a ruler). What situations bring out a person's compulsive neatness?

Here's another example of telling:

* It was a hot day.

And here's showing:

* Her shirt stuck to the small of her back, and sweat rolled down her thighs as she trudged up the parched lawn to the porch, where a collie lay panting in the thin shadow offered by the rocking chair.

Notice some advantages of showing versus telling:

1. It's more interesting to read.

2. It creates a sharper mental picture.

3. It provides more information. The last "showing" example lets you know something about what kind of hot weather it was, neither the silken warmth of a tropical beach or the deadly scorch of the desert.

4. It's convincing. If I say it was a hot day, you'll probably trust me on that. But if I say Lois is horribly messy, you might wonder if she's really as bad as I'm claiming. For all you know, I'm a neat freak, and Lois has things in better perspective. With the "showing" example, you can judge for yourself.

5. It's possible to do more than one thing at a time. You can show the reader that the weather's hot at the same time that you walk your character up her front yard to her porch and introduce her dog.

"But if Lois is a mess, can't I just say she's a mess?"

Sure, you can. And there are times when you should.

A few reasons to “tell," not “show"

* The scene is not important to your story.

* It's boring. You might show me your character nodding off in biology class, but please don't subject me to the entire biology lecture.

* It's background information you want to communicate efficiently.

* Telling just works better. If you want me to know that your character's from Ohio, you can say so. It's not necessary to leave Ohio bus tickets lying around his room or to have him drop "Go Buckeyes!" into the conversation.

Try it!

Here’s an exercise you can use to practice “showing" versus “telling." Just replace each "telling" sentence with "showing" ones.


Telling: They were angry.

Showing: “He slammed his water glass down on the table so hard her plate rattled. Still, she refused to look at him, glaring instead at her napkin, which she was ripping into shreds with her fingernails."

Telling: She was a very organized person.


Telling: It was a cold day.


Telling: She had a secret crush on her realtor.


Now here are some story ideas that you can use to write fiction that convinces the reader by “showing" instead of “telling." You’ll find more ideas in the Story Starters section of the Creative Writing Now website.

* Two old friends get together for dinner after a long time apart. One of them is secretly in love with the other one. Show this, don't tell it.

* Your character and his wife visit a new house that they're thinking of buying. Your character's wife is enthusiastic about the house, but it's really a terrible place. The character hates it but is afraid to say what he really thinks. Show the scene. But.. do NOT tell the reader explicitly that the house is terrible. Do NOT say outright that your character hates it. Do NOT have the character directly tell his true feelings about the house to his wife. Instead, make the reader see and feel it all. And eventually, make the wife see it too.

* Your character is alone at home with someone he or she’s afraid of. (Why is this person in your character’s home? Why is your character afraid of this person? You decide.) Show your character’s fear instead of telling the reader about it.


Post a Comment