Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Show, Don't Tell

When the writing bug first bit me, I developed a feverish search for information about how to write. I enrolled at master classes at The London Book Fair, attended a workshops at Harper Collins, joined writing groups, a book club, bought how-to books, attended writing workshops and started to read more fiction. I realise that no amount of books or workshops can teach new writers how to find a passion for writing, but it's possible to learn techniques and rules.

But surely rules are meant for a classroom full of hyperactive, unruly children? Surely writers are free to unleash their creative talents in any way they choose?

The answer is, yes, they can. But they'll stand a much better chance when submitting their work to competitions or agents, if some writing rules are adhered to. Manuscripts won't be dismissed without the adjudicator or agent even finishing the first page.

Some rules are basic. Submit in a clear font, double spacing, no gaps between paragraphs, indent paragraphs and the first line of dialogue. Writers know these rules like it's second nature. The rule which has always fascinated me, and which I'm still striving to perfect, is show, don't tell.

It can be a bit tricky, but the simple way to put this rule into action, is to think that telling is from the author's point of view and that showing is from the character's point of view.

Eek! I suppose I should give an example next!


The fair was in town. Emily and Sam walked amongst the bustling crowds holding hands. Emily was excited about the rides but Sam was more interested in the mechanics of the event. They decided to take a ride on the big wheel.


"I love the fair," sighed Emily. "It reminds me of being a little girl. Mmm! Those toffee apples smell amazing." She grasped Sam's hand. "Come on, let's go on the big wheel, it's my favourite."
"Hang on a minute," called Sam, inhaling deeply. "Take a look at this generator. I much prefer the smell of oil and petrol."

Okay a simple show and tell and I'm sure we all agree that we don't fancy a trip to the fair with Sam! To sum up, telling is similar to watching a film. The words (the camera) are telling the audience what is happening. It is giving information regardless of who is present, or even if no one is present. Showing is seeing things from your characters' perspective. It's showing their viewpoint and experiences. We are inside their head, so to speak.

Even though I understand the show and tell rule, I'm sometimes caught out whilst editing my work and notice a paragraph that slows the action down. And it's usually a telling piece!


  1. Good post, Ange! That 'show, not tell' is the bane of many a writer's life and you provided a great example!

  2. A rule that turns a nice story into a great read.

  3. Thank you Rosemary. Love your idea of featuring writers on your blog. xx

  4. Thanks for popping by and commenting Gene Pool Diva! : )

  5. I'm often thinking of how to show not tell. I'd love to have a discussion about this with a group of writers who know what they're talking about.

  6. You should come along to Nottingham Writers' Studio Keith. There are lots of traditionally published authors and we have sub-branches of fiction groups.
    Thanks for reading and commenting! : )