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Show, Don't Tell

Learn what “show, don’t tell” means and get tips on how to create images for your readers.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
October 28, 2010
Episode #246

Page 1 of 2

show, don't tell

Today we’re going to learn about the old writing adage “Show, don’t tell.”

Brenda is a teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and she asked me to help her students understand why they should try to show their readers images rather than just tell them facts. She says, “A problem shared by novice writers is the inability to provide specific detail. LSD, [lacking specific detai is an acronym made up by an English teacher friend of mine. Frequently students will have papers covered with the comment ‘LSD’ because their writing is general and vague.”

I confirmed with Brenda that what she is trying to convey to her students is the old writing adage “show, don’t tell.”

What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe.

Here’s a sentence that tells:

Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man.

That gets the information across, but it’s boring. It simply tells the reader the basics about Mr. Bobweave.

Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Bobweave in the reader’s mind:

Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection, he pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.

In the second example, I didn’t tell you Mr. Bobweave is fat. I showed it by writing that his feet spread and describing his apple-like frame. I didn’t tell you Mr. Bobweave is old. I showed it by mentioning his arthritic knees, his cane, and that he has a girl who tends to him. I didn’t tell you he is ungrateful, but with the impatience of a pounding cane and his disdain for his caregiver, I got you thinking that he may not be a very nice man.

Show and Tell, Paul Downey at Flickr. CC BY 2.0 Generic

Next: Can You Ever "Tell, Don't Show"?

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