Teachers will often tell you to show rather than tell when you’re writing. It’s a good rule of thumb to help you remember not to simply convey all the information to your reader upfront, allowing people to read between the lines.
Let’s imagine that you’re writing a story. In your story, it’s a crisp, autumn morning and the main character in your story is visiting his elderly mother.
An inexperienced writer might handle the subject matter like this:
It was a cold, autumn morning. David was going to visit his elderly mother. He got out of the car and went inside.
It’s much better to show, to describe, what’s happening in the story. You can achieve this by:
• describing the scene using the five senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell
• using a range of language techniques—such as metaphor, simile, personification and onomatopoeia
• using dialogue
• finding synonyms for common words using a thesaurus
Consider this example:
The engine coughed as David turned the key. Stepping into the morning air, he looked around. Pedestrians rushed along the cracked footpath, breath lingering in the air for a moment before disappearing completely. Skeletal trees reached for the sky and passing cars stirred up bunches of leaves. The leaves danced fitfully. Stepping onto the path, David felt their soft crunch beneath his feet.
His gloved hands clenched the newspaper and he sipped the coffee.
Bitter. Tasted like an old coin.
He continued along the path for a moment. A car passed. Stepping onto the road, he could taste the acrid fumes at the back of his throat. As he crossed the road, he looked up at the house: sagging, weatherworn and tired.
He looked affectionately at the tire swing that hung in the yard. Memories of long summers beneath the sprinkler. The wooden steps creaked, he reached out and knocked on the door. There was movement inside, a hunched and slow moving silhouette in the hallway. The door opened slowly.
“Good to see you, too, mum,” he replied.
Now this example is much more interesting!
Each of the following examples tell rather than showing. Rewrite them as a paragraph using description and dialogue to show rather than telling. The first few example has been completed for you.
a. John had a job interview. He was really nervous.
John’s resume was tattered where he’d been clutching it tightly. He tapped his feet nervously, swallowed, and looked at the door to the office. “John Moorecroft?” the receptionist asked. He nodded and she gestured towards the door. “Good luck,” she added.
b. Jane’s fifth birthday party was one of the best days ever.
c. It was night, Amy walked across the deserted car park, she was scared.
d. Dave was exhausted and pleased to get home.
e. Mike enjoys skateboarding.
2. Choose one of the following scenarios and write it, conveying important details to the reader by showing rather than telling:
• It’s 1944, a woman is cleaning her house – her marriage is in trouble and she is concerned about their teenage might be drafted for military service.
• It’s a foggy morning and a school student is apprehensive about a presentation that they have to do later that day.
• It is a summer day. John is heading to the beach but, contrary to what his mother has instructed, he doesn’t want to take his little sister along with him.
• It’s a cold winter morning, the main character is on his way to work, that he loves reading and is intimidated by the man sitting next to him on the train.