Show and Tell for Writers

Show and Tell GorillaSHOW, DON’T TELL! Most of us have received that advice at least once in our writing careers. What does it mean? And how should you respond?

Let’s start with a simple TELLING sentence:

The dog is excited. 

There are two clues that help explain why that sentence is TELLING.

  1. The sentence TELLS us the dog is excited without explaining HOW the dog demonstrates her excitement or WHAT caused her to act that way.  If you SHOW she’s wagging her tail, licking your face, or doing the circle dance, you don’t need to TELL the reader the dog is excited. In general, if you invoke one or more of the five senses, the reader will deduce how a character feels without being told outright.
  2. Every sentence needs a verb, but use of linking verbs IS, ARE, AM, WAS, or WERE makes a sentence passive, not active. Passive sentences are especially TELLING when characters label emotions or physical attributes without providing comparisons or descriptive details. If we get rid of IS in the above sentence, we will automatically substitute an action verb like jump, lick, wag, and bounce.

excited dogHere are two suggestions for turning the TELLING sentence into SHOWING sentences:

When I come home from work, my dog hops like a pogo stick and howls.

The dog bathes my face whenever I walk inside, even if I only went to retrieve the mail. 

Yet another option is to TELL and then SHOW:
When my dog gets excited, she goes completely airborne. 

The possibilities are endless. That’s why writing is so much fun…and can lead to endless rewrites!

Now let’s look at a few sentences from Night of the Moonjellies by Mark Shasta:

Night of the MoonjelliesThousands of moonjellies stretched along the sea in every direction. I opened the bag and poured out our moonjelly. 

Those sentences SHOW what’s happening with strong action verbs. But this is what comes next:

Now it was with the others. We stood on the deck and watched the shimmering sea. 

Notice that Now it was with the others is passive and TELLING. But it’s beautifully simple and straightforward and sandwiched between descriptive SHOWING sentences. I especially appreciate the adjective shimmering to describe the sea because it captures it so well. So yes, both TELLING and using adjectives can be very effective in picture books. This is particularly true for concept books.

To demonstrate SHOWING and TELLING within sentences, let’s look at another picture book: Ida, Always, by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso.

Ida, AlwaysWhen Gus tossed the ball, Ida was there to catch it. And when Gus splashed water, Ida was there to splash him right back. 

There are lots of action verbs in those sentences, but Ida was there is TELLING. Why does it work so effectively? Because the authors reinforce that Ida is always there…until she isn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more heart-wrenching picture book than this one.

With Middle Grade and Young Adult novels, if the writer’s (or character’s) narration style is straightforward, there are bound to be more TELLING sentences. In Counting by 7s, Author Holly Goldberg Sloan demonstrates how TELLING and SHOWING sentences can reveal a great deal about characters and help to differentiate them.

Counting by 7sOn page 39, Dell Duke reports this: The elderly didn’t like him. He lacked true compassion and he had no stomach for their health problems. On more than one occasion, he was seen running from the activities room in a full-blown panic. 

What do we know about Dell Duke? If Dell stopped at The elderly didn’t like him, the reader wouldn’t understand why. But by the end of the paragraph, the reader gets a clear picture of what makes Dell tick. If he can skate by life without much human interaction, that will suit him fine. Of course, life has other plans in store for Dell!

On page 49, Willow Chance observes this about Dell Duke: He was getting more and more agitated. As he spoke, small dots of saliva lodged in the corners of his mouth. They were foamy and white. 

Willow is a highly detailed observer. If she stopped at He was getting more and more agitated, the reader would wonder how Willow knew that. But small dots of saliva, etc. provides an indelible visual that allows the reader to deduce Willow’s observation is correct.

My last examples hail from The Siren by Kiera Cass, as related by main character Kahlen:

The SirenFrom page 4: I looked to my youngest brother and saw him lapping up the rain, like a wildcat clawing at raw meat. When someone near him tried to do the same, they scrapped with each other, fighting over the drops. 

Ooh! Something strange is going on here. This is highly descriptive and highly disturbing.

From page 4: It was then I knew something was wrong. Some of the passengers were rushing, fighting their way through the masses, while others looked like they were sleepwalking.

If Kahlen stopped at the first sentence, the reader would be lost. But by the end of the paragraph, the reader will understand completely. Passive sentences are common in YA – especially when written in past tense- and I found Kahlen’s style of narration to be extremely descriptive and compelling.

VerdictHere’s my verdict: TELLING sentences often leave readers wondering HOW, WHY, or WHAT and alone, aren’t especially engaging. But is SHOW, DON’T TELL your only choice? No! As the lovely examples from above demonstrate, you should feel free to TELL and SHOW or (wait for it…) SHOW and TELL.


    1. Thanks, Carol! NIGHT OF THE MOONJELLIES is one of my favorites, and I’m sure your 4th graders loved it too.


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