Writing Advice - Show Don't Tell

Updated: Nov 13, 2019


A Splendid Show

This is a short post from a terrific writer - Sean Platt: at seanplatt.net


We’ve all heard the mantra: “show, don’t tell” applied to fiction.

The idea there is that you shouldn’t just explain to the reader something is happening — you need to put the reader in the middle of the scene, making them watch and feel and think the things your characters are. If your character is angry, you don’t just say “Shelly was angry.” You show her shaking fingers, her reddened cheeks, the tears making her vision blur. You fill her ears with the thundering of her heart and the speeding of her breath. You make her shout her next line of dialogue.


Showing is what creates an emotional impact, and that is always the goal of a great book.

But, like all mantras, “show, don’t tell” is not a hard-and-fast law. The skillful use of summarizing (i.e. telling) is essential to maintain the pace of your writing.


You should use summary to compress time. Whenever the characters are doing something that doesn't move the plot forward, a paragraph or even a line of summary can be enough to bring the reader up to speed.


Any mundane action that the reader will be familiar with can also be summarized, unless something unusual happens to interrupt that familiar activity. In other words, don't show your characters ordering dinner on their first date unless they're going to be interrupted by the heroine's baby-daddy or ninjas are going to attack. Just have the heroine observe, "Jake waited until after we'd ordered drinks to start his interrogation."

Summary can be used to open a scene and orient the reader, alerting us to a big jump in time and/or space.


It can be used in the middle of a scene to compress time and describe uninteresting but necessary activities so the reader doesn't have to endure a description of how a carwash works or what it's like to wait in the woods for six hours in a hunting blind without seeing any deer.


There are two types of summary: narrative summary and dramatic summary.

Narrative summary is a simple summary of events. It can be used to compress time:

As afternoon became evening, they sorted through the towering stack of folders—Max took the old case files and Shirley took the recent ones.

Five hours later, they hadn't found a single clue.

Narrative summary can also be used to compress distance:

Max barely spoke on the drive back to St. Louis. Shirley distracted herself by reviewing the dead detective's case notes. By the time Max's Porsche reached the city limits, Shirley had gone through the slim notebook three times, finding nothing.


Dramatic summary goes a step further and combines a summary of events with mini-scenes that can be as short as a line or two of dialogue.

As afternoon became evening, they sorted through the towering stack of folders—Max took the old case files and Shirley took the recent ones.

Halfway through the pile, she thought she had something. "Xavier Mountjoy. Cherry bombs in the toilet in high school, and he set off a pipe bomb behind his college dorm."

"A pipe bomb's not a car bomb. Is he connected to Harris?"

"Not that I can see."

Max shrugged. "Put him in the maybe pile."

But five hours later, they hadn't found a single real clue.


Both types of summary become more engaging when they're written to include a stimulus-response structure.

For example:

Max barely spoke on the drive back to St. Louis. Shirley ignored him right back, distracting herself by reviewing the dead detective's case notes. By the time Max's Porsche reached the city limits, Shirley had gone through the slim notebook three times. Nothing.

It's a small thing, but by adding Shirley's reaction to Max's silence — she perceives it as him ignoring her and decides to respond by ignoring him back — this short passage is transformed from a summary of events to an interaction between two people with implied emotions.

And instead of telling us that Shirley found nothing in the detective notes, relaying that through interior monologue adds emotion, as the terse thought hints at the character's frustration.

In general, you do want to skew toward showing. But if what you’re showing could be boring and/or isn’t essential to plot, character, theme, or symbolism, it’s time for summarizing. Keeping it brief and engaging, sprinkling summaries with characterization and mini-scenes, and following a stimulus-response pattern will all increase reader engagement even with those inevitable boring-stuff-is-happening times.


See David's eBooks at: www.davidphillipsauthor.com

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