Breaking Writing Rules Right: “Show, don’t Tel…


8 times you need to use Telling in your writing.

It’s one of the first rules of creative writing you’ll hear. It may be the rule you hear the most: “Show, don’t tell.”

I’ll explain what that rule means, why it’s in place, and then why
following it too closely can actually harm rather than help your

There are places in writing where telling is just frankly better, and even more powerful.

What’s the Rule?

The Rule:

Show, don’t tell.

Why it’s a Rule

Honestly, almost any beginning writer who is getting into writing needs
to hear this advice, and probably several times. When I was in college,
this was like scripture. I heard it every week, if not every day. This
is because naturally, we are wired to “tell” a story rather than “show”
one. Telling is easier, and if we don’t know the difference, we just do
what’s natural and easy.

But what is the difference? And why does it matter which you use?

Here is an examples of telling:

  • Emily was tired.

Here is how you would change that example into showing:

  • Yawning, Emily dragged her backpack on the way to her bedroom. Her
    eyes drooped shut with each step. She fell into her bed and her shoes
    blackened the covers. She rubbed her eyes–mascara gritted against her
    skin–then flung her arm over her face to block out the light.

In my second example, I don’t just tell the reader Emily is tired, I
show them. There are a few reasons to do this. First, if I simply say
“Emily was tired,” as an audience, we don’t get a visual for what
“tired” is, how tired Emily is, or what kind of tired she feels. It’s
vague and general. Is Emily a bored kind of tired? Or physically tired
from running a mile? Or sleepy-tired? But when I show it, it’s clear
she’s sleepy-tired. How sleepy-tired? Tired enough that she can’t pick
up and carry her backpack, so tired that her eyes droop shut and she
doesn’t bother to take off her shoes before “falling” into bed. She
doesn’t even wash off her makeup or turn off the room’s light.

That’s how tired.

Second, when you show instead of tell it immerses the reader into the
story so that they feel like they are experiencing it instead of just
reading about it. It’s like they are there in the house with Emily, or
are Emily herself. One of the ways to do this well is to appeal to the
senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. In my second example, I
appealed to the senses of sight and touch. (In contrast, in my first
example, I appealed to no senses.) It’s important to immerse the reader,
so that they are experiencing the emotions in the story. If you “tell”
them everything, you’re (almost) never putting the emotions in the reader, so the story won’t be as powerful. When you “show” the story to the reader, you are allowing them to interpret and come to their own conclusions, rather then you telling
them what to think and believe. They become the character.

If telling still doesn’t seem that “bad” to you, look at what bland telling looks like sentence after sentence in this example:

They went to their friend’s house to see some cats. They liked them a
lot. When they got tired, they called their mom to pick them up, but
their mom couldn’t come for two hours. It was cold out, so they went
inside and got something warm to eat. Then they drew some pictures
before watching t.v.

How much emotion do you feel from that? Do you feel like you are in the story? Does it have you on the edge of you seat? Probably not.

Most all beginning writers write stories this way, which is why learning
to show, not tell, is preached just about everywhere. Telling is easy.
Showing takes work.

But like any writing rule, if you treat this one like a commandment, it
can actually hurt your writing and take the power out of your story.

Why You Need Telling

Here is why you need telling.

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