Writing How To

Showing not Telling, the art of Engaging Stories

Why show not tell in a story, how to show not tell and an example from 1984.

The Question

Simple question, what makes an enjoyable read? No seriously, think about it. What was it about that book, short story, graphic novel etc that really drew you in? Aside from the obvious things that spring to mind (plot, character etc) that are too subjective to mention, I can hazard a guess that might just be right. You were not told explicitly; you were shown a little and then your mind helped to fill in the blanks. 

You will forgive me here, but I am going to refer to horror. When you are watching a film (or movie for readers across the pond) the element that makes the ‘thing’ scary is that less is more. You see this thing in the dark, in muted tones, with shapes and outlines but not lit up in bright lights for the world to see. In the best horror films, the thing is alluded to, hinted at, lurking in the dark corners and has limited screen time. You must fill in the blanks. * 

*Side note, therefore, sometimes when you see the thing in full detail there is a sense of disappointment. Like needing to sneeze and it never quite arrives. You were told not shown. 

The idea 

Let’s boil this down. How many of you have a book that you love? Okay hands down, I get it, you all love reading (as you should). Now think about this, how many of you have a book you love turned into a film (okay! MOVIE). Did that change the way you viewed the book? For me, I always think about Lord of the Rings, now Gandalf will always look and sound the way he was played by Sir Ian Mckellan (glorious actor though he is). It will always have an impact whenever I read that book. You have lost that element that you created. 

The benefit to being a little obscure is that people fill in the gaps. Think about your favourite characters, you have an impression a guide to what they might look like, how they might behave or sound but that is all it is. A guiding principle. Having the freedom to explore is well worth the effort and the price of admission. Through leaving some things to the reader you get more engagement and the following:  

• Create their own interpretation of a narrative
• Give challenge to reading – we do not like things too easy
• You, as a writer, develop a more compelling narrative

How to implement 

Showing rather than telling gives so much more scope and allows a reader to consider what has happened and why character (s) behave in that way. I like to think about it like this. A news report gives information and lacks ambiguity, a story should be the antithesis of this. 

Avoid the following:

• He was hungry
• He was scared

Try and make it more like:

• He looked at the clock that was well past twelve, his stomach rumbled incessantly.
• His breathing was labouring his body shaking as icy fingers of sweet traced his spine.

In short, telling is just that, a factual statement whereas showing is something that leaves an emotional imprint or idea with the reader. 

Here is an extract from the opening of 1984 by George Orwell (if you have not read it, read it!):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. 

Who is watching you?

Straight away he shows us the world inhabited by Winston Smith is different to our own, the subtle knowledge of clocks “striking thirteen” draws our attention to this oddity. The atmosphere is oppressive, Winston cannot “escape the vile wind.” We are left with an impression of both the character and the world he inhabits through being shown not told. 

Give it a go 

I leave this post with a challenge. Look at the image below, what has happened? Remember, show do not tell.  

I look forward to your response. 

As ever, 

Warm Regards, 

Magpie Stories 

By magpiestories

An English teacher by trade, an author at heart, it only took a global pandemic for me to start writing my first novel. Along the way, I found a love for creating shorter fiction which I share on this site along with some updates and (hopefully) useful writing tips.

I hope you have a... pleasant time reading.

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