Show Don’t Tell – Super Basics in Creative Writing

Writing Pen and JournalRecently I shared an example of “Show, Don’t Tell” with a fellow student in my writing class. This was such a hard concept for me to learn. The examples may not be stellar, but I think they get the point across.

When you want to “show, don’t tell,” describe the senses and employ the use of descriptions, not just for physical objects but actions, too.

This is telling:  “Mary was so upset because she couldn’t apply her make-up just right. She only had one hour to go before her blind date, Roger, picked her up. Her best friend from work, Sally, fixed her up. It would be Mary’s first date in a year since she broke up with Fred.”

LipstickThis is showing: “Her eyeliner was too thick, the concealer caked under her eyes, and she swiped on too much pink blush that made her look like a call girl. If only Mary’s hand would stop shaking so she could reapply her make-up before her blind date arrived.

Sally, Mary’s co-worker, brightened up when she spoke of her brother, Roger, and Mary imagined enjoying his down to earth, yet exciting personality. She needed someone like that since her break up with compulsive and pretentious Fred. Mary relaxed her clenched jaw and took a deep breath, then poured some make-up remover onto a cottonball.

Instead of telling that “The fire truck went rapidly down the street” show how “The massive red fire engine roared over potholes and left trash flying in its wake.”

singerUse original metaphors and similes to tell your story.

A metaphor or simile helps your reader to easily envision the thoughts you’re trying to convey. “He seemed as tall as the tree in my grandmother’s garden,” or “He fought like a man with no arms,” or “She sang as if chalkboard scratching was a new art form.”

What is one of your favorite “show, don’t tell” sentences, be it yours or from another author?

10 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell – Super Basics in Creative Writing

  1. Good, yes, I tell this to my students all the time, but make this error myself. This is why writing is so difficult though. It’s easy for me to talk about and hard for me to do.

    • It really helped me to see before and after examples in written form until the concept finally sunk in. And it’s still hard to do! I’m trying to slow down and be more thoughtful with each manuscript. I go over every sentence that stands out and sounds like a “tell,” and then give it a bit more umph. Thank you for sharing, John.

  2. Another way to talk about this is to say that we should always write from the body. Write about the physical rather than the abstract!

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