Show. Don’t Tell


Writing advice I’ve heard for years is, “Show–don’t tell.”  I always had an idea of what it means, but I had trouble really grasping the concept. In an effort to gain understanding,     I pretended I was letting someone watch a movie versus telling him about it. Later on, comparing my writing to a movie caused a light bulb to come on over my head. While writing a scene in which the heroine climbs from a boat to a ladder on the side of a large ship, I wrote, “She tripped and nearly fell into the water.” At first I thought this was pretty good,  since I’d added a suspenseful element, but then I imagined watching a movie in which the action stops as the main character tries to move from the boat to the ladder.         A narrator then says, “She tripped and nearly fell into the water.”

Aha! I finally understood that I needed to describe why she tripped and how her feet dangled over the water, and what she did to save herself. We need to tell exactly what happens so the reader can imagine it as if he/she is watching a movie or TV show. Determining how much activity to disclose depends on how important it is to the scene and plot, and also how interesting, unusual or traumatic it is. We should go into more detail concerning what our characters are doing, not only in action scenes, but during conversations.

“Show–don’t tell” is related to the term “fleshing out,” which I’ve become familiar with,   but I was unsure of its exact meaning. I thought it might be making the characters more realistic and believable by telling more about them, and that’s part of it, but it’s also about adding flesh to the story itself. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as: Adding more details to something that exists only in a draft or outline form.

Studying an excellent article by Marg McAlister, “How to Flesh Out a Story Without Padding,”  I began to think of my early story draft as a skeleton that needs meat on it.   Just as you would imagine adding flesh, features, and other details to the skeleton, think of doing the same thing to a story that’s just “bare bones.”

But, according to the article, we need to resist the urge to pad–that is, adding useless words and descriptions just to make the manuscript longer. We could compare padding   to the “fluff” we see on TV sometimes, especially during talent shows. Our writing needs nutritious food which will give it muscle–not fat–facts and descriptions which will add   to the overall story and let us in on what the characters are thinking. In describing how     a character feels, it helps to ask questions such as:  How do I know she’s angry?  Or afraid?  Or sad?  What are her tells? Interior monologues help us to be inside the character’s heads, as if we’re in the story, in a sense.

I hope this is helpful to some writers, and I’m sure the article I’ve linked below will benefit your writing in some way. It’s froth with good advice, and it’s helped me to under- stand “fleshing out” better. I’m still striving to master the craft of writing, but at least       I know I’m going in the right direction.

Marg McAlister’s article:


About dalesittonrogers

I live with my husband, Rick, and our two cats, Mocha and Tiger. I write articles and poetry, and fiction for all ages. I'm excited about my novella, Lost in the Everglades: and my store: Follow me on Twitter! @DaleSRogers
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