A Quick Look at Show versus Tell

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Does show vs tell apply to all writing?

I'm part of a team project assigned to develop an online training video. The project's writers include a broad mix of backgrounds including writers, trainers, actors, instructional designers, and scriptwriters. My forte in this arena is the instructional design and training aspects. Although I teach in an e-digital format for this same company, what I do isn't a story video, it's pure teaching. That said, I've noticed as we've moved from brainstorming ideas to objectives to key points to actual scripts that show vs tell still remains important.

What is tell?

The first script had a scene where our characters discuss something that happened at work. One character has the knowledge. The other two don't. So, he's telling them about it. They don't experience it as it happens, which means the audience doesn't experience it as it happens either. It's a bit on the dry side.

Writers tend to use "tell" when they don't want to take the time to map out the whole scene or they want to show someone's reaction to the story. The problem with this? Audiences, whether viewers or readers, don't feel connected to the event. It removes them from what happened.

What is show?

Show focuses the scene or story on the actual event. The audience experiences it as the characters do. Although hearing a story about something later can be exciting, it's much more exciting to be in the middle of it AS it happens.

Can you write the scene as it happens and still "tell"?

Yes! Notice the two examples below:

  • Jane felt sad when she saw them crying.
  • George wanted to throw something.

These lines tell the reader rather than show them. How do we fix this? It takes a bit more work, but it's worth it.

  • Jane swallowed the sudden lump in her throat at the sign of her friends crying. For a moment, her sight blurred, but she blinked hard and fought back her own tears.
  • George gritted his teeth and tightened his fist. His gaze fell on the vase on the table. He took a step away, fighting the urge to pick it up and hurl it across the room. 

Notice how more present and in the experience we feel when we get to experience these two scenes through show rather than tell.

How do I show with secondary characters?

In the two examples above, we are in the heads of the characters. The snippets are written in third person close point of view. What if Jane or George are not your point of view character?

  • Jane stared at the crying girls, her throat bobbed and she blinked several times. With a loud sniff, she stepped forward and put her arms around them.
  • George's hands curled into fists. His gaze swept around the room and came to rest on the old vase of mother's. He stared it it. Took a step toward it. His hand flexed. Then, with a quick shake of his head, he turned away, his shoulders hunched.

No matter whether the action belongs to the point of view character or one we observe through them, we can gain much more depth in our writing by showing instead of telling.


Thanks Phil. I had fun creating them.

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