The secret behind ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ in your writing

One of the lessons hammered home – and often taken up with zealous alacrity by writers early on the learning curve – is to ‘show’ not ‘tell’.

One of my bookshelves...
One of my bookshelves…

Telling is the first way most people express themselves when writing, but it doesn’t work too well to capture readers. It doesn’t fire up the imagination; it plods, and everything’s spelled out.

Better to make the reader think – to get their imagination working by hinting at details and letting the reader fill in the gaps. That’s what ‘showing’ actually is. The act of filling in the gaps is what draws the reader alone and gets them emotionally involved in the story. Typically it involves describing how a character feels about a thing, rather than describing the thing.

But – and there’s always a but in these things – one of the mistakes learning writers often make is to crush all forms of ‘telling’, such as declarative sentences. This can actually be counter-productive because sometimes, declarative writing is a good way of scene-setting, and of moving the action along to the next ‘showing’ point. And sometimes it can, itself, be a form of ‘showing’.

For instance:

“Roger watched as the winter sunset flushed red, and it made him think of home and the warmth of a fire in the grate and dinner bubbling on the stove.”

See what I mean? Besides which, variation is the spice of good writing. And Hemingway, needless to say, was a master at this particular technique.

It’s worth trying.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


5 thoughts on “The secret behind ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ in your writing

  1. So true, it’s not so much that any one writing technique needs to be cut out of you’re writing completely, it’s that you have to remember to use a variety of techniques to write a story.

    1. I agree – and I’ll be exploring some of those techniques in my various writing-related posts (usually on Saturdays, NZ time, but not always) over the next little while. They all go together to make up a whole: and the particular ‘flavour’ of the individual author’s mix of those techniques is one of the things that defines their style.

  2. It’s also a useful way to compress; not everything needs to be described at length.

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