Writing Tips: Show Don’t Tell


Greetings and welcome back to the blog. Today I return to active status with a commentary on a very basic aspect of writing, yet one that many writers struggle with early on. I chose to comment on this after reading works from my fellow writers and finding them having a hard time with it. This aspect is the simple rule of show, don’t tell.

What It Is

Imagine the ending of Old Yeller; the tragic scene where the boy is forced to kill his beloved dog, now gone rabid. This is an iconic scene of film history, a scene which never fails to bring tears to the eyes of those who watch it. Now, imagine that scene re-imagined, in which everything happens the same, but the boy turns to the camera and cries to the audience as he acts, “THIS IS SAD! I FEEL SO SAD RIGHT NOW!” Granted, this is an exaggeration, but this is the basic concept of show don’t tell- the idea of allowing the reader to interpret what they see or read, rather then spelling it out for them.

What Writers Should Know

One thing to stress is that while show don’t tell is important, it is not all consuming. Certain scenes, such as dramatic events or important moments can certainly be expanded upon, because it heightens the sense of drama and story for the readers. It can be the difference between a scene being described as a swordfight, when it is in truth…

However, the issue with many new writers is feeling they need to do this for every scene. While important scenes need to be painted clearly, many writers over do this for fear of not getting their point across. Everything is described too much- the scenery, the motives, and worse, the character’s motivation. Like the Yeller scene above, writers may simply tell the readers what the characters are thinking and feeling, rather then letting their actions speak for them. Or they will overdo scenery and slow the story down. This not only hurts the story, but the reader as well. To a degree, reading and even watching are mental exercises. The audience needs to be challenged slightly, or else they will not learn to appreciate the experience.

One of my greatest experiences in reading and viewing was knowing enough to guess a character’s motivation and use them predict what will happen in the story. But this was only because I read stories that did not tell me everything and forced me to think and anticipate how events might play out. Denying viewers this will make them feel as though the story is overburdened, or that they are reading something far too simple for them. It is the same reason that stories with subtle villains are far more revered then stories with obvious ones- both are important but stories that make a viewer guess engross us more.

What Writers Can Do

Simply put, writers need to know when and how to show. As I mentioned, a major scene should be described fully. But spending as much time describing a kitchen as the Gates of Hell is a waste of time. Scenery must never overtake character or story. And writers need to have faith that the actions described are effective at molding character and motivations. Remember, the reader is smart enough to interpret a scene, if you are careful. But no reader wants to be told what to feel or what something means. So for a final example, I leave you with a recent example of breaking this rule. Below is an original scene from Return of the Jedi, in which the evil Darth Vader watches the Emperor torture his son….

And here is the version George Lucas put into the recent blu-ray re-release.

See what I mean?


Posted on January 21, 2014, in Inspiration, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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