The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

You’ve heard the classic writing rule, “Show. Don’t Tell.” Every writing blog ever has talked about it, and for good reason. Showing, for some reason, is really difficult.

Telling is one of the hardest habits to eradicate from your style. I still struggle with it regularly. However, writing that shows is so much more interesting than writing that tells that it’s worth doing the work.

And the good news is that it’s pretty easy to show if you just learn this one trick.

Show Don't Tell

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Be More Specific

The simplest rule to remember if you’re trying to show is just to be specific. Specificity will fill in the gaps from your telling and bring life to your scenes. Let me give you an example of how being specific will help you show.

Here’s a very tell-y example:

They went to New York to see Cats. They both enjoyed it very much. When they tried to go home, their flight was delayed because of the snow so they stayed another night and decided to see the musical again.

That’s a fun story. A great trip to the city could be ruined by the weather, but they make the most of it. It’s all pretty vague, though, isn’t it?  Who is they? What theater did they see Cats at? Why did they enjoy it? How did they feel after their flight was delayed?

To show rather than tell, you have to interrogate your story. You have to be more specific.

Here’s that example with some of those questions answered:

Tanya and James flew to New York city in a 747. They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms. “I can’t wait to see the show,” Tanya said. “You’re going to love it.” James shook his head. “I don’t get it. It’s about Cats who sing and dance? Sounds sorta dumb.” Tanya smiled, “Just trust me.”

Their hotel was just a few blocks from the Foxwoods Theater so they walked. He had never seen buildings so tall or so many people walking on the street. When they got to the theater, Tanya noticed his eyes were a little wider, his mouth a little slacker. The foyer was covered in gold and white marble, with hundreds of people milling around in gowns and beautiful suits. He didn’t talk much. Finally, they took their seats, and the lights went down. He took her hand.

….

Let’s stop there. Once you get specific your story can get a lot longer.

But that’s a little better, right? Instead of “they,” we now see Tanya and James. We know a little more about them, that Tanya is a little more cultured, while James is more wary of it. We get a glimpse of the theater.

Interrogate Your Story

There’s still more room for specificity, though, which is why you always have to interrogate your story.

What was their flight like? Why is James so awed by New York? What’s the nature of their relationship?

Here’s another example with some of those questions filled in with specificity:

Tanya and James flew to New York in a 747. Tanya drank club sod and James had ginger ale. “Can I have the whole can?” he said. When they in LaGuardia, James turned to her and said, “Just so you know, that was the first time I’ve ever flown anywhere.”

“What?” said Tanya. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to know I hadn’t left Oklahoma.”

She took his hand and kissed it and held it to her cheek.

“I’ll still love you, even if you are an Okie hillbilly.”

They both smiled and he kissed her.

….

That’s definitely more specific, but it’s also getting longer. We haven’t even gotten to the theater yet.

I hope you see by now that every story is like an accordion. You can get infinitely more specific, but the consequence of specificity is length. While you should want to be more specific, to show more than you tell, you’ll need to cut the detail that doesn’t add to your story.

Be more specific, but don’t bore us.

PRACTICE

Rewrite the following story by being more specific.

They went to Los Angeles to see his parents.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, please give some feedback to a few other writers. I hope this is a community that helps each other improve.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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