What does "show don’t tell" mean?

SHOW don’t TELL
by
Ednah Walters


The first time a critique partner scrawled these words on page after page of my chapter, I went, uh? I was clueless as to what she was referring to. As a self-taught writer, I knew that descriptive pros drew a reader in, but the journey from telling readers what’s happening to showing them has been bumpy but satisfying. Telling is unimaginative and boring. Showing engages the senses, makes readers visualize a scene and allow them to draw their own conclusion. 

So how can you tell when you’re telling instead of showing? Lets start with a simple sentence. 

My husband flirted with the waitress. 

This sentence gets straight to the point and tells you what is going on. It is bland. It doesn’t engage the imagination or evoke any emotion. In fact, the writer leaves everything to the reader. Instead of wanting to read more, a reader is left wondering what the husband did for the narrator to draw this conclusion, how the waitress reacted and how the narrator felt. 

The waitress flung her blonde hair and sashayed toward my husband. She leaned forward to pick up the empty plates, deliberately thrusting her chest too close to his face. He read the writing on the tight T-shirt barely covering her large breasts then said something. The woman’s high-pitched giggle filled the room. As she walked past him to serve the next table, my husband turned to watch her with a grin. 

Now this version is a bit more descriptive you must admit. A reader can visualize the scene and become engaged…maybe. Yes, there’s a bit of showing, description of the waitress, a bit on the flirting, but the passage is so impersonal. Something is missing. Why should you as a reader care about what the waitress is doing when the narrator doesn’t seem to? 

Her black, ruffled skirt short and indecent, red top snug, the woman flung her platinum blonde stresses as she glided toward my husband’s table. She fluttered her fake lashes as she talk, her hand lingering on his arm after she served him. I clenched and unclenched my fist when he leaned forward and pretended to read the writing on her T-shirt then whispered something in her ear. He was checking out her enviable double-Ds, the letch. I crossed my arms over my less noteworthy chest and cringed when she giggled, the high-pitched sound grating on my already frayed nerves. He turned and ogled her as she walked to the next table with an exaggerated sway of her generous hips. 

Okay, this passage may be wordy, but you see what I’m getting at. It shows emotions. It is descriptive. It shows the use of senses. We now know more about the waitress, what she wore, how she looked and the exchange between her and the narrator’s husband. But above all, we know about the narrator’s take on the scene. There’s pain as she watches the waitress and her husband, and glimpses of her insecurities about her breast size. The entire passage is personal and raw with emotions. A reader is left with questions and the need to learn more. What is the narrator going to do after this scene? What is going to happen to her marriage? 

So there’s my take on showing versus telling. Stimulate the readers with descriptions and throw in a dose of emotions, and viola! 


About Ednah Walters
In her own words:

I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Hardy boys mysteries before I graduated to my older sister’s romance books and the rest is history.

I’ve written picture books, contemporary and romantic suspense, biracial/multicultural books, and finally YA fantasy. Awakened was the first book in The Guardian Legacy YA series. Book 2, Betrayed, is due in August. For my adult series, I started with an Irish-American family, the Fitzgeralds. Slow Burn is the first book in the series (Ashley’s story). Mine Until Dawn (http://www.ednahwalters.com/Mine_Until_Dawn.htm due in July 2011) is Jade Fitzgerald’s story. Kiss Me Crazy (Baron Fitzgerald’s story) is due in November 2011. 


I’m presently working on Faith Fitzgerald’s story and book 3 of the Guardian Legacy YA series. When I’m not writing, I do things with my family—my five children and my darling husband of 20 years. I live in a picturesque valley in Utah, the setting for my YA series.


Connect with Ednah Walters:
She doesn’t want to deal with the past… 

Ten years ago, Ashley Fitzgerald witnessed the death of her parents in a tragic fire and blocked the memory. She pretends to have moved on, is a successful artist and photographer, until the morning she opens her door to a stranger, assumes is a model and asks him to strip to his briefs. 
He wants to expose the truth… 
Wealthy businessman Ron Noble has the body, the jet, the fast cars and the women, but he hides a deadly secret. His father started the fire that killed Ashley’s parents. Now someone is leaving him clues that could exonerate his father and they lead to Ashley’s door. Blindsided by the blazing attraction between them and a merciless killer silencing anyone who was there the night of the fire, Ron can’t dare tell Ashley the truth. Yet the answer he seeks may very well tear them apart. 
While a demented arsonist and plots his ultimate revenge..

In preparation for the release of Mine Until Dawn, book 2 of the Fitzgeralds, Slow Burn is now $0.99 at the following e-stores:
Amazon
Barnes &Nobles
Smashwords or (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/50822)
Goodreads or (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10750656-slow-burn)

Slow Burn’s book trailer:
http://www.youtube.com/user/ednahwalters?feature=mhsn


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3 thoughts on “What does "show don’t tell" mean?

  1. I'm printing this and putting it in my writing space for future reference. No on has ever said Show Don't Tell to me but I can understand how easy it is to lose sight of little extra something needed to draw your readers in. It's what I love about my favorite authors and what I aspire to do with my own work.

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  2. Nice to see “show and tell” in easy steps. This does confuse many writers. We're told edit, edit, edit but “show and tell” *does* lengthen your novel and I think this is where writers come unstuck.

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