What is Show, Don’t Tell?
“Show, don’t tell” is an approach to creative writing that evokes emotive and cognitive responses from the reader, inviting her to feel and judge for herself. The idea is to avoid naming emotions or describing a character’s personality in favor of evoking a natural interpretation of observable behavior and speech, internal dialogue, and the underlying emotional experience or values. We say show with the idea that the reading experience will be like witnessing a scene or a character’s development with the mind’s eye.
Like most “rules” in writing, show, don’t tell can certainly be over-applied, but there are unquestionable benefits to allowing your readers to feel and judge through personal response rather than being told what the author wants us to feel.
Show Emotional Experiences
When we see someone’s lip quiver, tears pooling in their eyes, we perceive sadness or distress and experience an empathetic response that may include a feeling of sadness, pity, or perhaps embarrassment for the display of emotion. Show, don’t tell assumes that being told that a character feels sad is less poignant than seeing it. We don’t necessarily feel upset when we’re told someone is distressed, but we can be moved when witnessing it ourselves. Showing an emotional experience in creative writing involves describing what the emotion looks, sounds, or feels like rather than simply naming what it is.
Show Personality and Character Development
The same is true for character. If we witness (with our eyes and ears or through a dramatized scene) a father berating his adult son for not being “man enough,” our responses may include sympathy for the son and apathy for the father, and importantly, it’s likely to encourage judgement of character. Without being told anything about the father directly, we may conclude that the father is impossible to please, cruel, or backwards in terms of his ideas of masculinity. The sympathy we feel for the son can foster or strengthen an emotional connection to his cause or circumstance.
The flexibility that this technique affords character development is key. Using the same example, a father berating his son, consider the fact that we we may be moved to dislike him, but from our personal experiences as humans, we have stores of connotations, emotional and conceptual schema, about parent-child relationships, so we may subconsciously project quite a lot of information onto the characters and the scene. We may, for example, go so far in our minds as to assume that this father, although cruel, was probably treated similarly by his own father. In other words, we consider that he knows no other way. Perhaps, in a way, this makes us feel sorry for him, even if he’s not blameless. This leaves room for hope for character growth or change and a reconciliation between father and son.
Such connotations and projections are limited when we box a character into a label: The father is a cruel man who is perpetually disappointed in his son. If we tell our readers something like this, we may limit the character’s growth potential.
Show Tone and Attitude in Dialogue
Dialogue is a powerful tool to be used for both emotional expression and character development. And while it can serve to show (don’t tell), it too should speak for itself. Strong writers bring their characters to life with the words they give them and resist the “props,” as Browne & King (1993) call them, that support weak dialogue. These include adverbs, adverbial phrases, and dialogue tags that describe manner. For example:
“Show, don’t tell,” Trisha said sternly. (adverb)
“Show, don’t tell,” Trisha said with frustration. (adverbial phrase)
“Show, don’t tell,” Trisha admonished. (dialogue tag that denotes manner)
The argument is that if you need to prop up the dialogue with a description like these, then the dialogue isn’t strong enough (interesting enough, human enough, etc.) to stand on it’s own.
Articles related to Show, Don’t Tell:
Great Resources on Show, Don’t Tell:
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King (2004)