Need more help with “Show, don’t tell”?

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One of the key concepts any writer needs to understand is “Show, don’t tell”. If you haven’t already read our explanation of this, check it out here. For many, this explanation just clicks.

But let’s recap.

“Telling” is like a statement of fact.
Here’s a “telling” sentence: John was bored.

When you “show” a reader what’s going on, you use your words to paint a picture that helps them draw their own conclusion on a particular situation or scenario.

Here’s a “showing” sentence: John tapped his fingers on the desk and sighed as he looked at his watch.

Anton Chekhov famously said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

If you’re finding it hard to get your head around “Show, don’t tell”, we’ve fleshed out the concept a little further and provided some more examples.

Use concrete versus abstract words
Concrete words refer to things we observe through our senses (“yellow” or “cold” or “gritty”, – we can see the yellow colour, or feel cold and feel and touch the grit). Concrete words are things, not ideas. Concrete words are specific and have only one meaning — “run”, “jump”, “ball”, “water”, “rough”, and “blue”.

Abstract words refer to concepts or feelings (“happy”, “sad” – these are feelings and cannot easily be observed). Their meaning is open to interpretation. So we can’t use our senses to understand them. Using these abstract words frequently moves us into telling rather than showing and readers find “telling” dull reading.

There is another way to think about abstract vs concrete words which might be more meaningful… If a character is thinking and analysing something, then that is abstract, but if a character is doing something, then that is concrete.

It comes down to this: “Jenny feels sad” is abstract and it robs the reader of the chance to get involved in the story and work out what’s happening.

But if you were to write “Jenny slipped into her room, She buried her head in her pillow, held a picture of her mother and began to sob” … that’s concrete. It’s also active, not passive. Now the reader is involved, wondering why Jenny is crying about her mother. The reader is engaged, and compelled to turn the page.

Use dialogue
Let’s look at concrete vs abstract more closely, this time using dialogue.

The paragraph below involves a lot of “telling”.

Mick and Rebecca decided to go to JB Hi Fi to buy a DVD. Then they wanted to pop into the supermarket to buy microwave popcorn so they could eat it while watching the movie.

If you were going to “show” the above scenario, it might look something like this.

“Have you seen this one?” Mick flipped the DVD cover over to Rebecca.
She shook her head, then peered at the back cover blurb.
She shrugged. “Looks okay,” she said, handing it back.
Mick pulled out his wallet, taking the DVD to the cashier.
Rebecca placed the DVD she was holding back on to the shelf and glanced at her watch. She started towards the exit. “Woolies is about to close,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll meet you out the front. I’m going to get some popcorn.”

Getting rid of “filter” words
Filter words are unnecessary words that show the point of view of a character. Sometimes they might be called an authorial intrusion. The reader is forced to see a character’s point of view of that instead of going straight to the detail.

Example using filter words:
Melissa felt worried when she realised she forgot to turn off the iron at home. Actually, She wondered whether her daughter’s recent troubles at school were affecting her concentration. She was already running late to her next appointment and thought about whether she had enough time to go home to check. But she decided that it was too late, she had turned onto the freeway and decided that she would cross her fingers and hope for the best.

Example without the “filter” words:
Melissa screeched to a halt. She hadn’t turned the iron off and now she was already driving down the street. Yesterday’s conversation with her daughter’s school principal kept replaying in her mind. “Drugs …boys … fighting …”
She was already late for her next appointment. Damn.
Turning on to the freeway, she prayed that she wouldn’t come home to a scorched kitchen.

Here are some other examples:

Filter Words

The filter words don’t add value to the sentence. They are unnecessary and should be avoided.