Show vs. Tell

Have you ever been told that you are telling rather than showing in your writing?

I think most of us have at one time or another.When someone first pointed this out in my own writing I had no idea what the person was talking about. Today I’m going to try to enlighten anyone not already familiar with this concept.

Basically, think of showing vs. telling as living the experience vs. someone telling you about it. It’s always going to be more powerful if you  give your reader sights, sounds, smells, etc. and really let them know what the experience is like. While I have never been shot at, I can easily imagine it is a lot different to have someone actually shoot at you than to have someone tell you about it. Or, imagine being home alone in the middle of the night and hearing someone break in. If someone tells you about the experience it doesn’t have the same visceral reaction as living it first hand.

Here are two examples to help you see what I’m talking about:

Jasmine was climbing into bed when she heard the sound of glass breaking. She went to the closet and pulled out her pistol then walked down the hall. She rounded the corner, looked into the living room and saw that the cat had knocked over, and broken, a vase.

Or,

Jasmine was climbing into bed when she heard a crash followed by glass shattering. She froze, heart racing, and listened, but the only sound was her own harsh breathing. Swallowing the lump of fear lodged in her throat she rushed to the closet. Standing on tippy-toe she pulled down the black box. With practiced motions she opened the latch and carefully removed the flat black Sig P-225 pistol from its case. She’d never wanted to need this, but now she was thankful that her father had insisted she learn how to use it. She checked the clip, yanked back the slide to chamber the first round and flipped off the safety with her thumb.

Taking a calming breath she stepped into the hallway. The short passage seemed to stretch before her eyes, transforming into something sinister where death loomed around each corner. Like a wraith she crept from one shadow to the next, pausing at each doorway for any sign of danger. Each step ratcheted her anxiety. It felt like a swarm of bees had taken up residence in her stomach and every footfall sounded too loud, echoing through the still house. With shaking hands, she held the pistol out in front of her and whipped around the corner into the living room flipping on the light.

The cat blinked back at her. Deciding she was unimportant, he returned to his bath sitting in the middle of the coffee table surrounded by the shattered remains of the crystal vase her mother had sent for her last birthday.

Exhaling the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, Jasmine lowered the Sig and sagged against the wall. “Damn it Henry, you scared the crap outta me.”

The second example is a lot longer than the first but it also allows the reader to experience more of what the character is experiencing. Another tool I used in the second example is word choice. Using stronger, more descriptive, verbs like crept instead of walk, or shattered instead of broken enhances your writing. Using vivid imagery and adding specific details like pistol vs. Sig P-225 pistol can help a reader better visualize what is happening in the story and allow them to relate to what the characters are experiencing.

I hope this helps any new writers out there to understand the difference between telling your readers what is happening and showing them first hand. Also, maybe it will remind the rest of us to show, not tell! 🙂

Happy writing!