Tuesday, June 22, 2010

That Old Show, Don't Tell Once Again

Several years ago, I read an article urging writers to show, not tell. It's advice that has been given so many times in articles, books, and writers' workshops that you'd think no one would ever do otherwise. But maybe that's why the advice continues to be spread far and wide--precisely because too many writers want to tell a story rather than show it to the reader as it happened.

When you use more show than tell, a story comes alive. It's almost always more interesting when written this way. But what can you do to write your story this way? Let's look at a few examples:

Which of these sentences is more interesting? A tells us how Jennifer felt, but B shows us. Passage B not only shows emotion, it creates emotion in the reader, as well.

A. Jennifer felt angry.

B. Jennifer stormed into the kitchen, picked up a bowl of gravy and threw it against the wall. Body shaking, she clenched her hands into fists and searched wildly for another missile to hurl.

Now, look at this passage from Lois Newberry's award winning book Number The Stars which tells the story of a young girl living in Nazi-occupied Denmark. On her way home from school, Annemarie runs into two German soldiers. The author could have written 'Annemarie was frightened by the soldiers.' Instead, she showed us how Annemarie felt with this passage which shows us precisely why she is fearful:

Annemarie stared up. There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home. And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers.

It's a lot easier to simply tell a story, but if you take the more difficult path and show your story, it will almost always be the better way to a reader's heart.


  1. An important lesson for sure. Makes the world of difference in solid creative writing, or any writing for that matter. Thanks for getting it down and out there for us!

  2. We can all do with a nudge now and then to remember the things we've learned along the way. :)

  3. Karen in DenmarkJune 23, 2010 at 3:59 AM

    Hi Nancy!
    This is something that I really need to work on. Thanks for making it so clear.

  4. An excellent lesson. Showing does make a piece much more interesting. This is what I'm trying to teach Lauren, my granddaughter. We work on writing together when we can.

  5. Ooooh, I love that you work with your granddaughter on writing. She'll always remember that, BJ.