How to Write a Book: Show Don’t Tell
Guest Post by Irene Watson
“Show Don’t Tell” is some of the best advice writers will ever receive. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, attention to detail engages readers by taking them into the scene and making them experience it almost first-hand.
Anyone who has ever wanted to write or tried writing has probably heard the advice, “Show Don’t Tell.” It’s advice that bears repeating no matter how long we are writers. But what exactly does it mean?
When we tell people something, we usually summarize. For example, we might say, “I bought a new bed today.” When we show, we go into detail. In this case, we would explain how we decided we needed a new bed because the old one’s mattress was sagging. We describe how we went to four stores to compare prices and experimented by lying on twenty-seven different mattresses. We list the price ranges, recall the salesmen who helped us, and explain why we chose the bed we did. Then we relate what happened when the new bed was delivered. We convey our excitement over a new bed, and we conclude with the end result—the good night’s sleep we experienced, or perhaps, we did not sleep so well and we tell why. Buying a new bed does not sound exciting, but it can become a humorous and even adventurous story if we do a good job of showing instead of telling.
Nor does it matter whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction in telling the story. In both cases, we need to show rather than just tell to create an effective story. Non-fiction requires great storytelling just as much as fiction because stories are what readers will relate to so they are able to apply your information to their lives.
Below I’ll give two examples, a non-fiction and a fiction one, of how to show, not just tell. My examples will show how “showing” makes writing more effective.
Non-Fiction Show Don’t Tell
A lot of non-fiction is written with a how-to or self-help style. Other forms of non-fiction such as history or biography obviously require storytelling, but many types of non-fiction may not come to mind immediately as in need of storytelling. Think about it though—isn’t the minister’s sermon more memorable when a story is told, as is the college graduation speech, and when you ask people for advice, don’t you often want them to tell you a story of what they have done themselves—whether it’s your investment banker or judo coach. We all love a good story, so whenever it is applicable, tell one.
In this example, we’ll assume you’re writing a self-help book, the modern day version of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” One of your points is the importance of making people think you are interested in them by asking questions and listening to them. You can simply tell the reader:
When you meet people, remember that they love to talk about themselves. You will win friends if you convince them you are interested in hearing what they have to say, and you can make them think you are interested in them by asking them questions about themselves.
That is good advice, and you, as the author, might even go on to give the reader a list of questions to ask people that will make them like you and remember you. But giving advice and lists is not going to make the reader remember your advice as well as your telling a simple story, and especially, a story that proves your advice works. Furthermore, we can give people all the advice we want, but they aren’t going to listen to you unless they have reason to believe you know what you are talking about. Even if you tell readers you are a highly successful businessperson who has done deals with billionaires and you name those billionaires, readers will not be convinced unless you show them how you went about it.
How would you show in this example? After you state your advice and give your list of possible questions to ask people, tell the reader a story from your own life about how listening to someone and asking him or her questions made a difference for you. Your story might read something like this:
I spotted billionaire Joe Schmo at the networking event, and casting nervousness to the wind, I walked over to him. A lot of people would have loved to talk to him but wouldn’t have known what to say. Since I knew he would be there, I went prepared with questions to ask him based on doing a little research online about him and his interests, and trying to find out what I was similarly interested in that could lead to a rapport. The result—after I introduced myself, I said,
“Joe, I’ve always been a huge admirer of how you brokered that deal with XYZ Corporation to install your widgets in all their stores, but there’s one thing I’ve always wondered. I spend a lot of time working, but it takes time away from one of my passions, so what I want to know is how you find time to concentrate on your golf game and score so well when you’re so busy scoring in the business world?”
Joe laughed, not expecting my question to end the way it did, and I could see he was relieved to talk about golf rather than work. He replied….
From here you could relay Joe’s advice to the reader—maybe Joe even told you a story, which is a real bonus since the reader will then get two helpful advice stories. Beyond that, you can go on to show how that first meeting with Joe resulted in his inviting you to play golf with him, which led to a friendship, and later, some great business deals. Rather than just telling your readers about the importance of listening to people, suddenly you have a prime example of how listening to someone talk about something as seemingly innocuous as his golf game can lead to million dollar deals and a win-win situation for everyone.
Fiction Show Don’t Tell
In fiction writing, authors usually know they need to “show don’t tell” but that can be misconstrued into providing detailed description. Elmore Leonard advises writers to remember to leave out the boring parts, and often, the boring part is the description. Does it really matter to the story that the car is a red 2007 Honda Civic with 67,000 miles on it? Probably not.
What does matter is the characters, including their actions and their motivations behind those actions. Too often, new fiction writers try to sum up their characters with a few lines of description to introduce them, only to miss opportunities of showing not telling to make the characters endearing to the reader.
Here’s an example of showing not telling that might be taken from the middle of a novel:
A few years passed away until Matthew was twenty-seven and Rebecca twenty-five. Since the birth of their first born, Rachel, two impish little boys had been added to the family who kept Rebecca busy. Then Matthew was laid off from working at the mine and the family had a hard time making ends meet.
This passage simply informs us that time has passed and sets us up for the family to have future troubles, but it could actually be an effective scene that conveys the characters’ emotions. For example:
When she heard the screen door slam shut, Rebecca looked up from the birthday cake she was frosting to see who was home from school. When she saw Rachel trot into the kitchen but the twins not following her, she asked, “Where are your brothers?”
“They stopped because there’s a big crowd down at the mining office. Something’s going on there.”
“Oh dear, not a cave-in I hope,” said Rebecca, immediately feeling the need to sit down. Hardly a day went by that she did not worry about Matthew working there.
“No, Mrs. McCarty says she thinks there’s going to be a lay-off.”
“Oh, what a day for a layoff,” said Rebecca, suddenly remembering the money she had just spent for the twins’ birthday presents. She knew she shouldn’t have spent that much money, but they were six now and quickly growing out of their pants, so she’d had to buy them new ones, and they were such good boys that she couldn’t resist buying them a bicycle—she hoped there wouldn’t be too much fighting over having to share it. Maybe next year they could afford another—at least she had hoped so, but there wouldn’t be a second bicycle if Matthew were laid off—there wouldn’t be much of anything, she feared.
“Well, we’ll wait until your father gets home to see what he says,” Rebecca said, not wanting to worry her daughter unnecessarily. “Go change your clothes and get your chores and homework done before supper.”
This passage makes clear that Matthew and Rebecca have more children. It expresses Rebecca’s love and fears for her family, and it tells us something about the twin boys through Rebecca’s thoughts rather than a straightforward factual description that does not make the reader feel connected to the characters.
Showing not telling is a fundamental aspect of good writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Telling the story is really about “showing” and whenever it’s possible, writers should tell stories to win over their readers.
In closing, here are a couple of non-fiction and fiction sentences. Read each one and think about how you can change it from telling to showing:
King Henry VIII ordered the monastery to be torn down.
Americans attend church less regularly today than they did fifty years ago.
When installing your new faucet, make sure you first turn off the water.
John and Mary were engaged on Thursday.
Hilda was going to go to school at Harvard but then changed her mind and went to Princeton.
Harry loved his guitar so much that his parents would not have been surprised if he slept with it.