UncategorisedWhat 'show don't tell' really means | The Editing Lounge

Lots of editors are quick to tell writers ‘show, don’t tell’. But this advice has been given so many times that we often forget to explain what it really means. I’ll break down the concept here so you can make the most of this advice.

In brief, ‘telling’ is explaining what’s happening. Meanwhile, ‘showing’ is using specific details and sensory descriptions so readers can experience the character’s actions and feelings for themselves. 

So, rather than telling the reader what’s happening in your novel or short story, show them through images, emotions, and actions.

Examples of showing instead of telling

So, what can showing look like? 

Here are some examples of how you can ‘show’ by putting your readers in your character’s shoes.

  • Don’t tell readers that it’s hot outside. Show them the burn of the sun against your character’s shoulders, the coolness of his spray-on sun cream, and his craving for Fanta Lemon.
  • Don’t tell readers that your character is tired. Show them her rubbing her eyes and willing herself to stay awake.
  • Don’t tell readers that it’s spring. Show them the snowdrops and daffodil stems pushing through the frost.
  • Don’t tell readers that your character is blind. Show them the character’s dark glasses and guide dog.

In the words of Anton Chekhov, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass’.

Examples of showing rather than telling | The Editing Lounge

How to show instead of tell

How to show instead of tell | The Editing Lounge

These four tips should help you show instead of tell.

When you encourage readers to read with all five of their senses, you give them a physical world to connect with. Show your readers what they can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see.

When we read conversations that unfold in front of us, we hear events play out in real time. And readers can pick up insights from subtext (what isn’t directly said) in these conversations. 

Writing dialogue also gives you the opportunity to show readers your characters’ different tones, dialects, and perspectives. 

When you replace dull verbs with evocative alternatives, you can strengthen the picture in your reader’s mind. 

It can be helpful to work through your manuscript with a highlighter to evaluate each of your verbs. A painstaking job, but worth it.

Describe your characters without directly describing their personalities.

The ‘save the cat’ method is a good example of how to ‘show’ something about a character’s personality. The ‘save the cat’ example is a character who saves a cat from a tree. Readers are much more likely to like this character than the one that the writer simply told us was ‘nice’.

So, as another example, rather than telling us that your elderly character hates children, show us him approaching a child at a fairground and popping her balloon or stealing her candyfloss. 

Following these tips can help you invite your readers into your narrative; develop three-dimensional, relatable characters; and create a clear sense of setting.

If you need more help with showing instead of telling, take a look at my line editing service.

About Charlotte

Charlotte McCormac | Line Editor | Copyeditor | Content Writer | Shrewsbury | Oswestry

Charlotte is an award-winning writer and line/copyeditor who writes and edits for clients all over the world. She also works on the fiction team for Ambit, a UK literary and arts magazine. 

She holds an international literary prize from Hammond House Publishing Group, two writing-related degrees, various marketing certifications, and training certificates from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which she is a Professional Member.

Charlotte’s work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines, and literary journals, including IndigomaniaDream Catcher, and The Curlew

She has also created a series of free self-editing cheat sheets to help new writers hone their fiction before sending their work off to a professional editor.

CIEP | Professional Member | The Editing Lounge