Show, don’t tell

"Avoid relying too much on adjectives and adverbs".

This is one of the cardinal rules of good writing for readers of any age, but what does it mean? I remember first hearing it in a writing class when I was a teenager – and not understanding it at all.

But it’s really quite simple.

Think about watching a movie: You never see a subtitle saying, “This person is sad.” Instead, you see a girl with a tear rolling down her cheek, or a boy holding his head in his hands, or someone burying his face his pillow for hours. Each character will be sad in his or her own way.

Effective writing works the same way. Don’t say someone is poor. Show the house where he lives, where the wind blows though chinks in the wall and the only furniture is some old milk crates he scavenged from behind a supermarket.

In some sense, “show, don’t tell” is another way of advising writers to avoid relying too much on adjectives and adverbs. If you tell me the weather was “bad,” I don’t get a sense of what the weather was really like Sentences like that are not a crime, but make sure also to show me what the weather was like. Instead of adjectives, use nouns and verbs: Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, rain slanted down in sheets, pelting his face and drenching his clothes.

What “Show, don’t tell” really means is paint a picture. Appeal to the senses. Movies can appeal to only two senses – sight and sound. But as a writer you can appeal to all five. A character can feel the roughness of a cabin door, smell the pancakes and syrup cooking in the morning, and taste the tang of lemonade. And it is appealing to the senses –showing rather than telling – that makes for vivid writing.

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Photographed page is from The Enchanted Attic

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© 2013 by M.D. Spenser.