Show Vs Tell, a writing technique.


Recently, I have been reading a lot regarding writing styles and mechanisms, and one that has resonated with me has been Show Vs Tell.  It’s an simple enough construct, readers respond better to writing when they can experience the scene, not just read it.

‘Tell’ will give them the action and a catalog of emotions, while with ‘Show’ the character is the lens with which the reader experiences the scene for themselves.

Tell example,

“Peter was scared as he opened the door”

Show rephrasing,

“Peter’s face was ashen, his breathing coming in ragged gasps. Uneasy, mouth and throat dry he pushed the aged paint chipped door to the dark and ancient bedroom open”

What is important in ‘Show’ is a strong use of verbs, allow the reader to become emotionally involved, not just tell them they should.  This is achieved using expressive dialogue and an attention to detail in the scene.

There are plenty of descriptions of Show Vs Tell out there and they give some examples, but I found them to be a little spare so I came wrote some ‘Show’ examples of my own (which are not perfect) which I thought may be useful to other people researching into this topic.

Tell: Lisa is a spoiled child.

Show: Lisa rips and shreds at the latest of the already many opened gifts with hungry excess. Inspected, it is soon discarded to the mountain of red, green and gold wrapping paper cocooning the floor around her,  neglected like the others before it as she screamed out for more presents.

Tell: My mother and father are a wonderful people.

Show: Pride and love filled Michael’s smile and heart as his Mother kisses his father on the cheek. He hopes to himself that one day he would have the same love, respect and capacity for caring that his parents have for their children and themselves.

Tell: She is a talented musician.

Show: The voices in the crowded bar slowed and the room fell silent as June began to play.

Tell: The party was great.

Show: The music coursed loud and rapid, its beat creating waves of adrenaline that flooded Mike’s chest and his pulse to beat in time with the flow of its sound. Sweat runs down is face and covers body as the crowd moves together unified. A shout of joy and delight escapes his lips as the movement of beat, body and people mark the moment as perfection in his memory.

Tell: My mother bugs me.

Show: Sue places the mug of hot tea on the table, spilling a small portion of its contents down the ceramic edge over dark and stained wooden surface. Drawing a deep breath Sue looks across to her mother, biting back a retort on the same worn and tired topic.

Tell: He eats like a horse.

Looking across the restaurant table, Gavin could not help but marvel at his friend’s appetite or the shear quantity of food he was able to eat while still being able to carry their conversation.

Tell: He looked guilty.

Show: Stealing fugitive glances as she reaches her hand forward towards the lipstick, Tracey tries not to catch the eye of the shopkeeper as he continues to serve the customer. He knows she whispers to herself. Forcing and failing outward calmness, beads of sweat trickle down the nape of her neck.

Tell: The child was a brat.

Show: Mary looks down to her son Paul, calmly following his mother as she shops and then back across to the mum whose child is sprawled on the supermarket floor, arms and legs flailing, wails of protest reverberating throughout the store and is grateful for the sweet nature of her little boy.

Tell:The abandoned house was scary.

Show: It had been decades since the decayed and crooked house at the end of Elm Street had last been lived in. Steve made sure to speed past it whenever he came home late from practice. Its forgotten and overgrown gardens serving as an ever encroaching living backdrop to its intimidating nature, sending ice down his spine.

Tell: School is boring.

Show: Mind wondering and head resting on his desk, Joe’s eyes followed the glacial thud between seconds of the clock above the classroom chalkboard, willing the minutes to speed up and the bell to ring.

Yes, you may end up using greater wording, but he result is more pleasant to the reader.

Others, you may wish to try out for yourself.

  • My friend was angry.
  • My dog is cool.
  • She acted older than her age.
  • The trip was fun.
  • She changed.
  • A student’s life is hard.
  • The new student was lonely.
  • The substitute teacher was strange.
  • The class is terrific.
  • The car was old.

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