Six for writers: Show don’t tell – what’s all the fuss about?

The Betterware catalogue is sat on the kitchen table all innocent looking. For flip’s sake, either you are morphing into a boomerang when my back is turned, or else someone is bringing you back in. For the third time that day, I put it back out on the front porch. I never buy anything from it. I have the internet.

My son and husband are talking (loudly) in the next room. Since he has got taller than his father, every conversation they have is loud, and to my ears, competitively edged.

“Who brought the catalogue in from the porch?” I shouted three times.

“I did,” my nearly grown son said, filling the kitchen doorway, momentarily startling me – where did the boy go?

“Well don’t.”

“Why? What is it?”

It’s a catalogue of house stuff, but I never buy anything from it. Just leave it on the porch and they will pick it up again in a few days.”

He screwed up his nose. “Why don’t you just throw it away? If you don’t want it and didn’t ask for it?”

“Because it is someone’s business – how they make money – and I am not trying to hurt them, I just don’t want anything myself.”

His face smoothed into a wry smile.  Looking down on me, he said: “You’re such an inspiration. Do you know that Mum.”

My eyebrows lifted, waiting for the sarcastic punch-line.

“I really mean it.”

And I learnt a major lesson in how to be a parent (slightly too late as my youngest is almost eighteen) and the parallels in writing emotionally connecting fiction.

You can tell your kids until the polar ice-caps melt that they must be kind and respectful, but showing them is likely to have more power and impact. I am not a perfect mother, but I am ‘good enough’ and my son is kind and respectful not because I told him to be, but because I showed him how to be.

Just as it is in your writing.

When you want to convey an abstract idea, like respect or hate, you must show it through a concrete action if you want the reader to feel it rather than merely hear it.

I could say:

Roger was filled with hate.


I could show you:

Roger placed the air-rifle on the windowsill to steady it. The window was already ajar; the day had been the hottest one yet. The squeals from the playground were deafening.  The One Show was about to start and Monty Don was going to be on talking about his new Gardening programme. In Roger’s day, children were sent to bed straight after tea. There was no point talking to the parents, if anything they were more ignorant than their offspring. Some bright spark, no doubt the flashy lawyer from no. 45, with the four blond-haired boys ranging from downright evil to obnoxious, had filled a large paddling pool and placed it not more than ten feet from Roger’s back fence.

He heard the News coming to an end and lined up his sight. The eldest of the four boys had dragged a plastic slide over the paddling pool and was standing at the top of it, crowing about the splash he was going to make.

Roger aimed for his thigh and pressed the trigger. The gun popped. He swung it around and aimed at a squirrel running along the edge of the fence – rats with bushy tails was all they were. The squirrel and the boy fell down together.

The screaming started. He went upstairs and stood at his bedroom window as children ran into and over each other, scrambling for their back gates, like the savages they really were. Soon all would be quiet. He plumped up his pillows and sat on the bed, remote in his hand.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all ‘show’ – sometimes ‘tell’ is good enough, for example, when you have to cover a lot of time quickly. Not everything you write needs to have emotional resonance, sometimes characters just have to get places or complete an action, but never forget showing is where the power is.

So make sure, when the reader needs to feel, you show them how to.

Do you think unpublished writers make too much fuss about writing ‘rules’? Is show and tell one of those ‘rules’ that you get fed up hearing about?


4 thoughts on “Six for writers: Show don’t tell – what’s all the fuss about?”

  1. Your example of ‘showing’ is brilliant, and to answer your question, I believe the show and tell rule is one of the most important for new writers to learn. Reading stories that tell me what’s happening bore me. I don’t want to be told a story, I want to experience a story, and that’s what showing does for me. Is that important to every reader? I love character driven stories but if a reader loves plot driven fiction because they like working out the complex puzzles and twists in the story, maybe telling is okay. Last year I read a bought a book by a well-known, much published author, because she’d been mentioned favourably to my by other writers. I couldn’t get beyond the first three chapters because she was telling me a story, and I didn’t care a fig about her characters or her story.

  2. Thanks for commenting Juli – I also agree that in a fast paced plot, seen more in genre fiction, the reader just wants to know what happens next. I noticed this when I was reading The Hunger Games trilogy, at times the ‘tell’ was forced (authorial intrusion) and heavy handed, but I didn’t care I just wanted to know if Katniss would live. However, it is not a book that sparked huge emotions in me, nor is it one I would read again. Like all writing ‘rules’ it is more about learning the distinction and when to use one technique over the other for maximum effect.

  3. So much in this I don’t know where to start! How about the beginning, did you say? Well, I don’t think I’ve read anything so meaningful that kicked off with the Betterware catalogue (not sure I’ve read anything half literate about the Betterware catalogue, in fact). A real joy that has sparked off some thoughts about a post I might do about whether it’s possible to be more profound by writing about the mundane rather than sensationalising (also relates to a recent post from the fabulous Emma Darwin).
    And great to see Donald Winnicott getting a reference (although I’ve just had a strop as it turns out my voice recognition doodah doesn’t have him in its vocabulary – it does now) although I’m afraid I’ve got so many stories about bad enough mothers I think that’s more likely to rear its head on my blog.
    But onto your main theme, show don’t tell, yeah yeah yeah! It’s the only writing rule that’s ever really got me excited: it felt such a revelation the first time, even though quite possibly I was told it rather than shown, which seems a bit of a contradiction. I might not have quite thought it through, but I reckon there are only two rules: show don’t tell and kill your darlings, but I struggle with the second one more. Although there must be the freedom to break the rules (perhaps they should be guidelines) and perhaps there comes a point when there’s just far too much showing when you just want to get on the story.

  4. Hi Anne, welcome back. Glad I made the Betterware catalogue interesting. I agree the one thing that transformed my writing the most was understanding show and tell – although the subject is vast and I am forever learning more. I also agree there is a place for both in a novel. Sometimes we need to summarise, or give information, although starting a novel with an info dump as Austen does in Pride and Prejudice about social standing of families etc would not suit today’s readers. Show does dominate contemporary novels and I think we as writers have to understand how to use both techniques. Writing rules/ guidelines are made to be broken, which is how exciting new styles, voices and genres evolve,but I guess for most unpublished writers using the tools correctly first is a step that cannot be skipped (certainly that is the case for me).

Love to hear from you

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