One of the most common pieces of writing advice is ‘show, do not tell.’ It is a piece of advice, however, that is rarely understood. The question that most commonly arises, near instantaneously among students is, ‘how can I avoid telling in my writing’? This is because there is a misconception that to ‘show, do not tell’ means writers must avoid providing information. However, this is not correct – instead to ‘show’ rather than to ‘tell’ means as a writer you must be more specific with the information your provide. Below are four tips on how to use ‘showing’ writing.
1. So why do writers need to use ‘showing’ writing?
The very first point that writers need to understand is ‘why’ before they understand the ‘how’ of ‘showing’ writing. ‘Showing’ writing, rather than ‘telling’ writing is marked by specificity, carefully chosen adjectives, and important descriptive moments. When ‘telling’ writing refers to how great a banquet tasted, ‘showing’ writers would take a reader on a detailed exploration of the various tastes, sights and experiences involved in the feast. Therefore, the number one reason why writers use ‘showing’ language over ‘telling’ language is because it directly involves the reader. The article From Fables to Facebook: Why Do We Tell Stories by L. Fuge states:
“In a 2006 study published in NeuroImages, Spanish researchers asked participants to read both neutral words (such as chair and key) as well as words with strong odour associations (such as coffee, perfume, lavender and soap). Brain scans using an fMRI machine showed that when they read the odour-associated words, their primary olfactory cortex lit up; but when they read the neutral words, that region remained dark. In another study at Emory University, texture metaphors such as “the singer had a velvet voice” or “he had leathery hands” roused both language processing areas and the sensory cortex, while more factual statements such as “the singer had a pleasing voice” only roused language processing areas. Similarly, statements like “he kicked the ball” caused activity in the motor cortex—and in different parts of the motor cortex, depending on which body part was described.
Read more at: www.australianscience.com.au/psychology/from-fables-to-facebook-why-do-we-tell-stories/“
The conclusion drawn by the article is essentially the reason for ‘show, do not tell’; when humans use more descriptive language it involves the listener or reader and evokes the sense that they are involved. Therefore, the first key step to understanding how to use ‘showing’ language is to understand that the purpose of this language is to evoke a response in the reader. There may be times when telling the reader about the event of a gruesome murder becomes more important than vividly depicting it, and if you as a writer understand that the purpose of descriptive ‘showing’ writing is to evoke a targeted response in your reader, then you will use language to serve that purpose.
2. ‘Showing’ writing is about the senses
If the purpose of ‘showing’ writing is to evoke a reaction in the reader, then the best element that writers can focus on in their creative writing is the senses. Rather than simply ‘telling’ the reader about an event, a writer should aim to focus on exploring and awakening the different senses that would be engaged during the event. Take for example a football match – rather than simply telling the reader about how the stadium was full and the players kicked goals, you would rather allow the reader to feel as if they were at the event. What better way to do this than to describe the smell of the fresh air, the roar of the crowd, the adrenaline buzzing in the air, the vibrant colours of the team uniforms? By appealing to the senses, writers can draw the reader in and convince them to become a part of the story’s environment, and that is a truly powerful thing.
3. Now ‘Let’s Get Technical’
The more technical aspects of ‘showing’ language all revolve around a few key things: adjectives, adverbs and pronouns. Here’s a quick reminder of what they are.
- Adjectives are descriptive words, used to explain and to modify nouns.
- Adverbs are also descriptive, used to explain and to modify adjectives, other adverbs, or verbs. Often they are thought of as ‘-ly’ words such as but this is not often the case.
- Pronouns are used in the place of nouns, they are words such as it, we, he, she, they, I, me.
Now, used properly, each of these are excellent types of words. However, there is a tendency to overuse adjectives and adverbs in creative writing. For example the statements ‘he ran very quickly’ or ‘luckily I found the place’ could both be accused of overusing adverbs. The first uses two adverbs – ‘very’ and ‘quickly’ – to modify the speed of running. Now the word running is already a quick action, so are both ‘very’ and ‘quickly’ needed here? Could the phrase ‘I found the place’ have just as much meaning as ‘luckily I found the place’? If an adjective or adverb does not add specific meaning to the sentence they feature in, as a writer you leave the art of ‘showing’ behind and become a ‘telling’ writer.
The issue with pronouns is that if writers are not careful, they can end up using pronouns without linking them to direct meanings. Take for instance the following sentences, ‘The girls ran into the boys at the shop. They then went to the park.’ At first glance, nothing seems too wrong with the sentences – until one considers that ‘They then went to the park’ can be read two ways: that the girls went to the park, or that the boys went to the park. Writers must be careful in their work to ensure that pronouns link to appropriate nouns in order to provide meaning. Anything else lacks specificity – and being specific is one of the key characteristics of ‘showing’ language.
4. ‘Showing’ is all about the ‘Writing Choices’
Using the language of ‘showing’ rather than the language of ‘telling’ all revolves around the choices that writers make. If the purpose of creative language is to evoke meaning, then it naturally runs that writers must make choices to evoke particular meaning. There are, therefore, a few key choices that authors can make: what to include, what to highlight, and what to leave out.
The choice about what to include is only the second most important choice. The choice about what information authors leave out is far more important. ‘Telling’ language often steps into the boundaries of including information which is unnecessary for creating meaning, purely because the information is interesting. ‘Showing’ language however, balances between including all relevant information and leaving out unnecessary information. Authors must include certain details, but the most important choice they can make is whether to highlight or exclude interesting facts and details.
What lies at the core of these choices are the idea of making word choices and organising sentences. ‘Showing’ language tends to avoid simple word choices. Words which might be considered ‘weaker’such as okay, good or like, are replaced with ‘stronger’ alternatives such as mediocre, positive or appreciate. Sentences in ‘showing’ writing likewise focus on maintaining active sentence structures, rather than becoming passive.
In short, ‘show do not tell’ is about maintaining a style of descriptive writing which serves the writer’s purpose with nuance and balance. To do this:
- Writers must understand the importance and purpose of writing
- Writers must engage the senses
- Writers should be specific and not overuse adjectives, adverbs or pronouns
- Writers must make careful choices for the sake of creating meaning
Most importantly, writers must understand that the power of editing can help iron out many of the problems of ‘telling’ writing and that learning to become a ‘showing’ writer is a journey, not an overnight step. But it is a journey every writer can begin as soon as they become aware of why and how they must ‘show, not tell’.