You all know the golden rule of writing, or at least you’ve heard of it.
If you have a minute to take a fun quiz, click here before you continue. One question is about that golden rule.
So, you probably answered the question correctly. The golden rule of writing is “show, don’t tell,” of course. What does it mean?
“Telling” means you give readers your interpretations and conclusions, while “showing” means you provide readers with enough details and behaviors to let them draw their own conclusions.
Showing pulls readers into the story and keeps them active and involved. Telling makes them passive recipients of a lecture.
How to show
Use the senses. Show readers things they can see, hear, taste, etc. Use concrete nouns and strong verbs that create an image, e.g., “she tiptoed” tells us more than “she walked.” Be specific.
Don’t give readers conclusions, e.g., Rika was a loyal friend. Show them a scene in which Rika is acting in a way that lets readers come to that conclusion on their own.
How to tell when you’re telling
Here are some red flags that might indicate telling:
TELLING: Hendrika didn’t seem impressed.
SHOWING: Hendrika tilted her head and peered down her nose, never moving back an inch.
TELLING: “You are such a jerk,” she said angrily.
SHOWING: “You are such a jerk.” She slammed the door.
TELLING: “It’s not my place to judge,” Hendrika said with her characteristic humbleness.
SHOWING: “It’s not my place to judge.” Hendrika lowered her lashes and peered at black-rimmed fingernails.
TELLING: “Get out!” he exclaimed.
SHOWING: “Get the hell out!”
TELLING: Rika heard Amy suck in a breath.
SHOWING: Amy sucked in a breath.
Instead of telling you more about “show, don’t tell,” let me show you a few more examples from Hidden Truths:
Papa had always said it wasn’t fit for a woman to live in, and while Amy thought it was just fine, she knew the townswomen wouldn’t want to move in here with Phin. It was a hard and sometimes lonely life out on the ranch. Maybe that was why none of the ranch hands had a wife.
“Papa says this place isn’t fit for a woman to live in. Not that I think so, but she looks like the kind who’d agree. Didn’t you ever wonder why none of the ranch hands has a wife?”
Calmly, Amy reached out and touched the mare’s shoulder, just for the length of a heartbeat. Then she took her hand away, showing the horse that nothing bad would happen.
Amy reached out and touched the mare’s shoulder, just for the length of a heartbeat. Then she took her hand away. “See?” she whispered. “Getting touched doesn’t hurt.”
The mare sidestepped nervously, and Amy dropped down and soothed her.
The mare snorted and sidestepped.
Amy dropped down. “Everything’s fine, beautiful. Let’s try that again.”
Rika had begged Jo to see one of the hospital’s lady doctors, but Jo had refused, saying she needed every dime to start her new life out west.
“Promise you’ll go see a doctor. They got lady doctors at the hospital now.”
“What would they tell me? To rest? To quit working in the mill?” Jo shook her head. “I can’t afford either.”
Rika drilled torn fingernails into her palm. “But maybe there’s a tonic or syrup that can help.”
“I can’t waste money on that. I need every dime when I go west. Now go, or the others will eat your supper.”
“Amy! Are you all right? What happened to you?” She had stopped counting how often something like this had happened, and her first thought had always been to make sure that Amy was uninjured.
“Welcome to —” Then Nora’s gaze fell onto Amy’s dress, and her mouth snapped shut. She hurried down the veranda steps. “Amy! Are you all right? What happened?”
When to tell
Telling has its place in fiction. If I showed everything, even the stuff that’s not important, my novels would be 500,000 words. So sometimes telling is not a bad thing.
I hope these tips help you to show and tell in all the right places.
Created by Krystel Contreras & Jorge Courbis