Show Don’t Tell: The Golden Rule of Writing

Hi, everyone! Welcome to our first blog post. Every Monday, one of our amazing TWS teachers will be publishing a new post – from writing tips to quizzes and games. Make sure to be on the lookout for those in the next few weeks.

Now, for the actual post. 🙂

After you’ve been writing as long as I have, there are some things you might get tired of hearing. “Don’t use passive voice” they say. “Write what you know,” they say. But almost every writer is told “show, don’t tell.” Everyone from professional writers to high school students gets this advice.

So I’m here to break it down for you. What does it mean? When do you use it? And, for crying out loud, why is everyone hung up on it?

‘Show, don’t tell’ is simple. Rather than using exposition to get your point across, writers encourage using sensory details and descriptive prose. Simply illustrated by Anton Chekhov, an esteemed Russian poet, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

What is happening in your story can be moving or shocking, but just telling the readers about the events makes the experience forgettable. An emotional connection makes writing more powerful; illustrating the events of your story can give it unmeasurable strength.

Showing is a skill that takes practice to perfect, but here are some easy ways to acheive it.

  1. Get rid of the extra filter.

Writers sometimes use their character’s emotions and senses as a crutch. Sounds don’t need to be heard and sights don’t need to be seen when you are showing them to your audience. Instead of telling the audience what your character is experiencing, have them experience it for themselves.

Telling: As Jonah trudged home, he heard the autumn leaves of New York crunching under his feet.

Showing: As Jonah trudged home, New York autumn leaves crunched under his feet.

Get rid of the filters; avoid saying, “he saw” or “she heard” or “they tasted”.

  1. Explain the physical reaction your characters are having.

This is what sets good writing apart from the rest. Every good story has characters with strong emotions, but instead of just telling readers what your character is feeling, show the physical reaction your character is having. 

Angry? Show your character balling her fists and clenching her jaw. She could swallow her anger and turn the other cheek or unleash her rage with words like daggers to her mother’s heart.

Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look worn out!”

When you show your readers what is happening, they can come to conclusions without you having to spoon-feed them your plot points. This makes your words more engaging and gives the readers an active role in storytelling.

  1. Describe your setting, the action, and everything in between – and be detailed!

Be more descriptive when you write about the important parts of your story. The plot and setting are some of the most important elements of any writing, so describe it thoroughly and use strong imagery. Incorporating all five senses to describe something makes it come to life. Here is an example:

Telling: A grass field stretched out in front of me.

Showing: The scent of freshly cut grass was in the air as I stepped into the huge expanse of green stretching to the horizon. 

A healthy balance is necessary. If you give every minuscule detail when writing a story, even a very short story could become the length of a book. 

Telling is often a more concise way of communication, and that brevity can be useful.

  • Showing the passage of time
  • Relaying simple backstory or exposition
  • Capturing the narrative voice of some characters
  • Expressing a simple statement
  • Crafting dialogue
  • Transitioning between settings
  • Balancing lengthy “showing” descriptions
  • Highlighting an important thought or action
  • Emphasizing suspense

Just make sure you’re being smart about when you show and when you tell. While you could give the excruciating details of your characters’ thoughts before they fall asleep, your character can also just take a nap and be done with it.

In the end, writing doesn’t have many strict rules.  Rather than worrying it too much, make sure your writing still flows well and engages readers; don’t feel obligated to change it just because you’re following this rule! As I always say, as long as you know the rules, you can safely break them.

About the Author

Sonia Birla is a student at Enloe High School, where she is part of the National Honor Society and German National Honor Society. Outside of school, Sonia is the president of a Cary-based non-profit called DOC NC, Dedicated to Our Community of North Carolina. Through DOC NC, Sonia began The Legacy Project, a task in which youth interview senior citizens to hear and document their stories for future generations. She is also a youth ambassador for HumSub, another local nonprofit organization. On the weekends, Sonia is at Sanskar Academy, a local Hindu Sunday school where she teaches elementary students. Sonia is also a judiciary co-chair in the Youth Legislative Assembly and is the Nigerian Partnership Chair in an international business internship. She has published two short stories in “A Window to Young Minds”, a short story compilation. She loves writing, designing, photography, film-making, and politics.

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