Show, Don’t Tell – Part Two

PatriotBartusiak3

In my previous writing tip, I began a discussion of a concept called “Show, Don’t Tell” in which I explained how this writing method creates vivid pictures and provokes readers to conclude “telling” adjectives. In this tip, I will explain how the method helps readers create emotional attachments with characters.

I’ll start with an example:


I was both furious and downtrodden. I had never felt so awful in all my life.


In this case, the writer tells the emotions to the reader by means of adjectives – furious, downtrodden, and awful.

Okay, we’ve been told, but so what? Did you feel those emotions along with the character? My guess is not at all.

Let’s see what happens when we show these emotions in a real-time scene:


I slammed the door and screamed, “How dare he call me a tramp!” I snatched my beret off and threw it against the wall. That self-righteous pig! Just because I suggested that we go to his cabin for the weekend, that makes me a tramp!

I stomped into the kitchen and snatched the moose-tracks ice cream from the freezer. I dug the biggest spoon out of the drawer, pried the top off the carton, and gouged out a huge scoop.

As I stared at the chocolate bits in the chunky mass, a tear crept to my eye. The word Why echoed in my mind. Why was my heart thumping so wildly? Why were my ears so fiery hot? Why was I ready to shovel ice cream into my mouth like a spoiled toddler? And most of all, why did I care so much about the cruel label he stamped on my forehead?

I sank into the corner of the kitchen and dropped the spoon into the carton. Because I have no respect for myself? Because I have about as much self-control as a drug addict? I let out a long sigh. Because maybe I really am a tramp?

I set the carton aside, curled my legs up to my chest, and sobbed.


Notice that the writer never labeled the emotions (furious, downtrodden, and awful) but instead showed them being acted out. Did you feel those emotions along with the character? Did the scene generate more sympathy or pity? Was there a sense of attachment?

The “show” version communicates the feelings with more heart-tugging passion. It draws readers in to share the emotions. It creates connection.

An emotional connection between readers and characters is one of the most important aspects of writing. If you fail to achieve this, your story will feel academic and lack passion.

In the next tip, I will explain when it’s better to tell than to show.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

Now for a bit of film “Show, Don’t Tell” I give you a scene from The Patriot. Feel the emotions. 🙂

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7 replies

  1. Gah! I don’t even know the characters, and I cried [I don’t cry very easily].
    Sheesh, Mr. Davis, why do you have make me so emotional? XD

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  2. ok, is the tramp thing from one of your books?? Which one? I’m hooked now.

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  3. Great example of showing vs. telling. And that movie clip–I haven’t seen The Patriot, but I have a feeling I need to. 🙂

    I’m looking forward to that post on when telling is preferred.

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  1. Show, Don’t Tell – Part Three | The Author's Chair

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