Writers write to share stories and have impact. The more evocative the story, the greater the impact. That impact is measured by the writer’s choice of words. Words that show, versus tell, are those that convey a meaning without explicitly stating it. Showing versus telling is an old adage to guide writers as they select the best words in the most appropriate settings following realistic characters through remarkable stories. Each word should contribute to the tone, overall syntax, and intention of the story. If you choose words with meaning and nuance, you will infuse meaning and nuance into your writing as well.
What is the Difference?
The difference between showing versus telling, in writing, is the difference between reading and feeling a work. Showing uses active verbs and well-placed descriptive terms that enrich and enliven your message. Telling simply annotates a character’s thoughts or actions as if reading a recipe—first, this happened; then, that—and explaining exactly how the character felt about it. The fun of writing is finding those right words that paint a picture. You can imbue emotion through action and setting without telling the reader what that emotion is; it is conveyed.
Here are some examples of both showing and telling. See if you can identify the differences that make the showing statements richer and more descriptive:
Show: The condensation from the cold glass trailed down my wrist as I tilted the drink ever upward, gulping the fizzy liquid as it tickled my tonsils.
Tell: I was so thirsty that I couldn’t let go of the glass, and it satisfied my thirst.
Show: Her misty eyes blurred her vision as she turned to glance at him sitting on the bed staring back at her. She took a hesitant step backward, and with a sigh, reached for the doorknob and left the room.
Tell: She was sad to leave him. She loved him. She looked at him one last time before walking out.
Show: Andrew stumbled into his apartment and banged into the wall on the way to his bedroom. His shins hit the end of the bed, and he collapsed, fully clothed, on top of the comforter.
Tell: Andrew felt really tired and didn’t know how much longer he could stay awake.
Why is It Important?
It’s easy to simply tell readers what they should think about a scene or how the character is feeling point blank, particularly when writing the first draft. You just want to get the words down and make sure you don’t forget any new plot points. Showing versus telling is important to consider in the revision process, where you can go back and layer in the richness and detail. Consider how you can depict emotions through actions. I once was given a writing assignment where we had to write two characters having a fight with no dialogue and no inner thoughts. Imagine a lot of loud, banging doors and kitchen drawers; huffing, puffing, and sighing a lot; or perhaps even the tingly eeriness of silence that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck—it’s anticipation.
Writers are excellent at observing people, reading body language, inferring meaning in strangers’ lives, etc. We judge those details based on observed actions and imagery from the setting, which together breathe life into the dynamic foundation for a great story.
When writing, you want to depict an image in the reader’s mind. Showing versus telling allows you to paint that picture with the most vivid and descriptive imagery. Any details left undefined remain fuzzy, unclear, and therefore unrelatable to the reader. Readers relate most to an image that they can see in their mind, as if they are walking along with those characters, experiencing the plot in real time. Compounded with the word choice is the way in which it conveyed—the syntax. The richness of each word can further stimulate readers through unique delivery.
All of the imagery, detail, structure, etc. contribute to the literary canvas and the potential emotions stirred among your readers, and the impact of reading a powerfully descriptive narrative is far greater than reading a story where every emotion and action are listed and matter-of-factly portrayed. Showing versus telling gives you, as the writer, the power to have lasting impressions with your characters and plot twists due to the strength of each vibrant sentence.
The Bottom Line
Narrative is strongest with impactful language. A writer should weigh each word and its potential to evoke emotion through action. A writer can layer in storm clouds over a hay field at sunset or add a bead of sweat to the face of a man being interrogated, which changes the personality of both the character and the scene. A writer can create a pop of color to a drab household setting or portray the sense of traffic with the vibration of car motors, exhaust clouds, and intermittent honking. Showing versus telling enhances any writing and fosters the reader-writer relationship.
Be sure to check out our latest issue of Junto for examples of our authors showing versus telling. Alexandria Rizik’s “Floral Wallpaper” is one that captures readers immediately with a strong voice and descriptive scenes that appeal to all of the senses. She uses action to depict personality and emotion. Her unique and clever diction layers in meaning so that the reader walks alongside her characters and sees the world through their eyes, further giving her story impact.