Show vs. Tell: How to Breath Life into Words

Show vs. Tell: How to Breath Life into Words

As Eliza Doolittle said, “don’t tell me about love, show me.”

There are a lot of ways for you to ruin your prose. You can write with invisible ink, drop your laptop down a flight of stairs, or write in a language you invented. “Deth mok gahn hehe?”

One of them is by “telling” your readers your story instead of “showing.” No, I don’t mean you should use hieroglyphics in your book or revert to a comic book without dialogue.

Telling is mere explanation of what is happening. Showing is a vivid description of the event. Take a look at the example below.

Telling: John was angry. He threw a rock at the wall.

Showing: John’s blood boiled with rage and his heart pounded with the adrenaline of an enraged barbarian. He snatched up the rock with malicious intent and hurled it at the wall.

WOW! Wasn’t ‘showing’ much better? I do, but then again I also wrote it. Here’s another that doesn’t involve violence.

Telling: Sarah picked daisies for her sick mother

Showing: Sarah gathered daisies in a bunch as a gift for her mother. She was careful as she plucked their thin fibrous stems from their ground. If she was too rough, their ivory white petals would droop and fall to the ground.

Can’t the reader infer what I’m talking about?

Sure, you can leave it up to the reader to infer the action and level of intensity. They can imagine what the character’s experiencing. But if you do that you should probably expect them to throw your book in the garbage and light it on fire.

Here’s the thing: don’t make the readers work hard. They’re already taking a chance on reading your book. They came to your book for an escape, not a mental workout. They want to be swept away by your insightful detail. They want your world to fill their senses.

That being said, there is a balance. You should describe 80% of the relevant information and let them imagine the other 20%.

So how do you show instead of tell? As a writer you have two main tools: sensory descriptors, and action.

Sensory Descriptors

You have five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and tactile. At any given point you are employing all five. Even emotions have a palpable feeling. Our body posture changes visibly when we are defensive or relaxed. The sense of smell is the strongest sense we have connected to our memory. All of theses senses are wonderful tools to bring your descriptions, and thus your world, to life.

You probably don’t want to overwhelm the reader with all five though:

John’s blood boiled with rage, his eyes went red with anger and his fists clenched so tightly that his nails drew blood from his palm. His heart pounded like a drum and was the only thing he could hear.

At this point if I added in “taste” and “smell” it would be a little much. There are scenes that require more heavy detail and depending on your readership, they may crave it. But for now just pick two or three and move forward with the plot.

...And Action!

Using intense action oriented verbs also help to beef up your descriptions. John threw a rock at the wall is not nearly as vivid as John snatched up the rock with malicious intent and hurled it at the wall.

Is it wordy? Yes. Does it paint a more accurate picture of what I want the reader to feel? YASS.

Here’s the other thing you’ve probably noticed by now about John. He’s a very angry person (I’m kinda scared). You know this because the actions and sensations that he’s experiencing are real to you as a reader.

SHOWING adds depth to characters without adding dialogue. Showing breathes life into the world you build for the reader.

Now get out there and SHOW me.

Jonathan McCullough