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How to Show Instead of Tell

By
Mignon Fogarty,
September 12, 2011

While reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, I came across a great example of the "show, don't tell" concept that many writing teachers promote. In the following section, instead of telling us how the son feels, Sanderson shows us how the son feels:

“The Codes are separate from the other two,” Dalinar said. “They are a tradition of old Alethkar.”

“No. They’re related, Father. All three. They’re tied together in you, somehow.”

Dalinar thought on that for a moment. Could the lad have a point? “Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”

“Yes,” Adolin said.

“I have?”

“Twice. And you made me listen to the passage being read another time.”

Instead of inserting a narrator's observation into the exchange, Sanderson lets Adolin's words show us that he is annoyed with his father's fixation on the story of the king carrying the boulder. It's what we might hear in a real back-and-forth between a father and son.

A less skilled writer could have easily written something that describes—tells—how Adolin feels:

“Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”

“Yes,” Adolin sneered.

or

“Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”

“Yes,” Adolin said in an annoyed tone.

In both those cases, the writer is subtly inserting himself in the conversation, which can make the exchange feel less authentic. Such descriptions aren't horrible, but if you can mix some showing in with your telling, it will make your writing richer.

Of course, it also depends on what you're writing. I recently reread some of  my favorite children's books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and books from the Nancy Drew series, and I noticed that, for young readers, authors spell things out a lot  more than they do for adults.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.

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