The first time I heard the words “Show don’t tell” I was in my first college creative writing class. The professor, a well meaning man with a masters degree in English, did not really elaborate beyond that. He did provide us with excellent reading and advice throughout the semester that I knew improved my writing by the end of it. Sadly, it was not until years later that I started to understand the different between showing a scene and just telling the reader about it.
I find it’s easier to learn through examples, so I’ll start with one that “Tells.”
It was night time. John walked through the woods toward his grandfather’s cabin. It was cold outside and dark, but he kept walking. He could see the cabin up ahead of him. The trees sort of hid it, but he would be there soon.
Now let’s try that again, and this time I’ll “Show.”
Stars twinkled in the sky above him, much more bright above him in here in the woods then they would have been back home in the city. The moon was absent though, so he did not have the benefit of its light above him, but he knew the path in front of him well enough. Fallen leaves crunched beneath his boots with every step he took, he would not have been able to get to the cabin quietly, even if he wished too. In the distance, he could see light dance against the windows of the small cabin, someone had started a fire. He looked forward to feeling the warmth of its glow once he arrived. John brought his hands up to rub his arms and gain some heat from the friction of the action. His breath came out in billowy clouds against the cool night air.
This is still something I am working on, but hopefully you get the idea of what Show Vs. Tell means from my example. Telling someone the story is just giving them basic facts, without giving them the parts of the story that really set the scene and make it feel real to the reader.
Showing gives them an idea of the scene, a feel for what is going on and what it looks like. It’s much more engaging for the reader because they can picture the scene and it will more clearly communicate to your reader what you want them to see.
You also want to create a more emotional connection for the reader to make with your writing. Maybe they remember what it was like to walk in dark woods. If they connect with the scene or the character, it’s more likely they’ll connect with your story as whole. Showing your story to them is a way to invite the reader in and make them part of the story. If you only tell them, you’re not giving them enough to make that connection and be a part of your story.
I’m still not perfect at showing rather than telling, but it is something I know actively think about when I’m writing, and that has helped me change the way I write a lot. What about you? Any tips for teaching yourself to show rather than tell?