what does show don't tell mean

What Does Show Don't Tell Mean?

The term 'show don’t tell' is thrown around a great deal, in fact, so much so, that it has become a bit of cliché, but, what does ‘show don’t tell' actually mean?

There are two ways to tell a story:

By telling

1.You can either relate it to someone in second-hand narrative summary

Or showing

2.You can ‘show’ someone with detail how the story unfolds

The technique of ‘showing’ someone how the story unfolds rather than ‘telling’ a summarised version of it is, in most cases, much more engaging for the reader.

By transporting them to the scene through ‘showing’, you make the reader feel as though they are a part of the action. By ‘action’ we don’t just mean gun totting, fist waving action, so don’t be fooled into thinking it just refers to writers writing high octane thrillers! ‘Action’ refers to the development of the journey for the protagonist towards their end goal, whether it is physical, emotional or mental development. Once a reader feels part of this action, it feels real to them. Once it feels real to them, they are much more invested in your story.

The big fall-out from too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ is writing that doesn’t engage enough to pull the reader in.

When Is It Ok To “Tell” and Not “Show”?

Whilst ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ is an incredibly important technique to master, there are occasions when it is ok to tell and not show. In most instances this is the case in genre fiction such as science fiction or fantasy where there is a great deal of world-building or a context to establish the story. Telling can also be used to help vary pace and to bring forward vital pieces of information from minor but essential sub-plots.

‘Show Don’t Tell’ is the most frequently repeated phrase by our editors in our manuscript appraisals. We make a point of bringing it up in the reports and annotating specific examples of it on the manuscript because it is such an important technique to master.

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