Friday, December 2, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Three Tips to Turn Tell to Show

A novice sees "SDT," in her manuscripts margin. When told the letters stand for Show Don't Tell, the novice frowns, "...and that means what?"

It doesn't mean to never tell. But a good critic looks for places a writer can substitute facts (tell) with show. Show refers to something written in such a way that readers not only follow a story, but experience it. Read the three tips here to increase your understanding of the SDT concept. Their use will help to guide you toward your goal of writing excellence.

  1. Engage Your Audience
They are participants aren't they? You write; they read. Instead of telling readers what to think, what to feel, or what to notice, give them credit for intellect. When they are pulled into a scene sufficiently to draw their own conclusions about characters or plot sequences, readers experience, through a movie in their minds, what you want them to know or feel.

Example of Tell:

Nobody liked working in that department, least of all Mr. Carter's assistant, Brenda. In her personal notebook she recorded his rudeness toward her and others. With Carter's negativity escalating, Brenda gleefully looked forward to the day he'd be fired. She had enough on him to present to head management, if necessary. It would rid their department of Mr. Carter, and put Brenda in his vacated office--with a promotion and raise, of course.

Tell Turned to Show:

Without losing stride, Alvin Carter stepped off the elevator, pushed the department door open, snapped his fingers at Brenda to summon her, pressed his remote key, and walked into his office.

Brenda pulled a notebook from her purse for a quick notation of his behavior. Give 'm enough rope, and he'll hang himself. As she moved toward his office door, she smiled. Keep it up, Alvin. You'll slip up seriously, and with your attitude, it has to be soon. I'll inherit your position with private office, and get two raises six months apart. One with the promotion, the other.... Raise morale, raise production, and that makes a raise for me. Poor Alvie, you just don't get it, do you?

When Brenda entered her boss's door, she left it open. If Carter raised his voice, others would hear it.


The Show selection is longer than the Tell selection. Describing behavior that demonstrates a characteristic requires more words than a simple fact: "Mr. Carter is rude." But which one paints a clearer picture?

The writer used a technique called "Stream of Consciousness" (SOC) to show how Brenda and her co-workers feel about Mr. Carter. Without being told directly, readers gain greater insight into Brenda's relationship with Mr. Carter. She not only dislikes him, but disrespects him. The reader of Show may question Brenda's character as she schemes to take Mr. Carter's job. Despite that, the reader of Show has a greater sense of Brenda's self-confidence, and believes she is destined for Carter's position. Is it because the writer evokes an intellectual response by letting the reader follow, and identify with Brenda's thoughts?

       2. Edit Your Work

Example of Tell:

To look at Carla as she listened to Rev. Milford's Eulogy, no one could know the depth of her grief.

Tell Turned to Show:

Carla stared past the casket spray, past Rev. Milford to the bare wood of the empty choir loft, its great maw swallowing her pastor's words, "God's grace, comfort, faith, heavenly kingdom."


Twenty words tell Carla, attending a funeral, is deeply grieved. Do you care? If you do, are you relating to Carla in an intimate way, or are you observing from a distance?

Compare your reaction to Show. Note the details added. How do they raise drama in the passage? Did you notice the phrase, "her pastor's words?" Does that lead you to believe Carla is a practicing Christian? Why is that cogent (though unsaid) information? How does the choir loft symbolize Carla's grief? Think about your intellectual engagement. Show does not use the words funeral, grief or eulogy. Compare facts given in Tell to the inference you draw in Show.

How to Edit Your Work to Raise Drama and Evoke Emotion

Write your first draft as fast as you can. If typical, that draft will tell the story, but will lack the emotional impact you feel and want to convey. Next, go through each page. Mark deadwood to remove and sentences to trim by rewording them.

With your word count reduced by one-third or more, go through the manuscript again. This time underline sections where you feel a sense of drama or a specific emotion. In the margin, label the response each invoked in you.

Next analyze. Your story is a movie in your mind. If you underlined "Sarah felt out of place because she was taller than her classmates," you identified with her and felt what it is to be different. But does the statement stimulate the same response in your reader? Not likely.

Try this: list Sarah's feelings about her situation. Include memories that hurt, made her angry, or caused her embarrassment. If, being taunted, she finally hit someone, what exactly happened? How did she deliver the blow that knocked him out...or killed him?

Take your rewrite to your critique group, and ask if you managed to transfer your mind's movie to theirs.

        3. Educate Yourself

You may have aced English in college, but if you think that turned you into a marketable writer, try selling your essays or research papers. Do people comment on your witty anecdotes? Try writing them to eleicit laughs. If you want to be published, find out what you must learn. Don't let your educational ego trip you. "Show, Don't Tell is a writing technique, and you can learn how to use it.

Read. Turn away from the sitcoms and read instead. Imbue how novelists reveal characters without making specific statements about how they look or feel. Notice how nonfiction authors, while not stating their opinions directly, atttempt to lead you to agree with their point of view.

Check your writing for: am, are, is, was, were. Simply rewording sentences that contain passive verbs often forces you to change tell to show.

Practice the art of SDT. Below, find one activity to start with.

Example of Tell:

Angela, recently divorced, had purposely filled her calendar with activities to stay busy and to forget the pain she felt. She volunteered at the church nursery on Wednesday nights, and read to children at the library on Saturday afternoons. On Saturday nights she served supper to the homeless, and cleaned the facility's kitchen afterward, staying after others left. There was always something to do. She washed grime off the legs of tables and chairs and wiped smudges from the woodwork. Perhaps her job and all the extra activity helped to push the hurt from her mind, but she felt she was just going through the motions of living. But it was not living. It was anything to fill time, to postpone returning to an empty apartment.

Turn Tell to Show

Show what you can do with the paragraph above. Post your "Show" in "Comments." If you want prompts for more SDT activities, use "Comments" for your request.

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An apology for the format of this post--I will reformat to make it more readable when a kind friend installs word processing software on my new computer. --Bernice Simpson

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

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