Show It, Don’t Tell It, In 5 Easy Steps

10.16.12 Posted in Writer by

The following post originally appeared on the website for Lucky Bat Books on 10/6/12:


“Show, don’t tell.” That’s the advice your English teacher used to give you. But similar to “write what you know,” this sort of sage advice has the flavor of the bland and too-worn anymore. What the heck does that mean, anyway?

Here’s what:

What if I said to you, “My daughter is really cute”?

I’m sure you’d believe me. But then again, everyone thinks their kid is cute…even kids who aren’t actually cute.

But mine really is. I’ll prove it. My daughter pronounces the word “yellow” like “la-yo.” She also doesn’t understand what “yesterday” means, so she just calls it “last day.” And ever since she saw someone in the park doing Tai Chi, she thinks just moving really slowly is Tai Chi, and she does it every night before bed, moving really slowly down the hall.

NOW…isn’t that cute? I just showed you.

The difference is called concretion.

When you write concretely (using concretion), you rely on the senses to evoke emotion. You let the camera of your mind roll on a scene, and your writing shares what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You don’t tell the reader what you’re experiencing, you’re showing them, which evokes more emotion. It’s a lot more fun to experience a roller coaster for yourself than to have someone tell you about it, right?

Abstraction, on the other hand, is the enemy of interesting writing. Whereas concretion utilizes the tangible, abstraction relies on ideas, concepts, feelings, processes. Abstractions are words like nice, good, fun, amazing, interesting, cool, boring. And abstractions are boring. They evoke no emotion from us because we can’t grab hold of them. We can’t picture them, or even connect to them.

I can tell you my mom is generous. Or I can show her donating her time or money to a person who needs it. I can tell you my teacher is boring. Or I can show him droning on with his back to the class as he scribbles math problems on the board.

5 Steps to Interesting

5 ways to immediately take your writing from abstract (boring) to concrete (lively and interesting):

  1. Paint a picture with your words
    Let the camera roll. Tell me what the room looked like, how it smelled, or what the temperature was. Was it hot and muggy, or cold with a draft blowing in through the window? Did you hear traffic outside, or was it eerily silent? Let your senses do the talking, and you’ll never have to tell me how it feels to be there—I’ll just know.
  2. Prove it with evidence
    How do you know my kid’s cute? Because of her unusual vocabulary, which I’ve already shared with you. What’s the evidence that your mom is generous, your teacher is boring, your weekend was amazing, or your best friend is fun? Your answer will, I guarantee you, be concrete.
  3. Tell stories
    It’s okay to use an abstraction if you’re going to tell a story to support it and give it life. If your weekend was amazing, tell me the story of what happened. We all know cancer’s a devastating disease, but I’m probably going to feel that devastation more palpably if you share a story that illustrates that.
  4. Use dialogue
    Words coming out of people’s mouths instantly put your reader in a moment, in a scene. Speech patterns, tones of voice, and accents are even more effective at awakening our senses. So rather than telling me about a conversation after the fact, rather than telling me the news your character got from her doctor, and rather than telling me about a frustrating exchange a man had with his boss, show it to me with dialogue.
  5. Use active, particular verbs
    Think of a sentence as a body. The nouns are the bones; they’re the thing around which a sentence is built. They give the sentence structure. So if nouns are bones, then verbs are the muscles. The stronger, more active, more particular your verbs, the more active and lively and healthy your sentence. Know what the laziest verb in the English language is? To be (and all its various forms). Know why? Because it literally does the very least it can do: It exists. Lazy verbs make for lazy sentences. You can say, “My mom is nice,” or you can say, “My mom donates time to the homeless shelter every Saturday.” See what I mean? The “to be” verb is a marker for abstractions. Strive for active, particular, muscular verbs! So did your character walk? Or did he trudge, tiptoe, prance, or sidle? Did she laugh, or did she titter, chortle, honk, or snort?

So next time you want to tell me how cute your kid is, prove it! Show me.

Comments are closed.