If you’ve ever had any sort of writing instruction at any time in your life, you heard the advice to show and not tell. But what exactly does “show, don’t tell” even mean?

Let’s see if we can unravel the mystery for you.

Read and think about the following short, roughly written story:

Gladys woke up, her heart pounding. She looked at the clock on her nightstand; the red LED numbers glowed 3:17 a.m. She thrust her hand under her thick covers and felt for her right foot. It was still there. She threw the blankets off to the side of the bed, heard a high-pitched meow, and savored the cool air washing over her. Slipping her feet into the purple plush slippers she’d lined up on the floor beside her bed, she got up and shuffled to the kitchen. She grabbed a low ball glass from the clean side of the sink and filled it with frosted-over ice cubes from the bread bag in her freezer. She dug in the back of her refrigerator for her half-empty bottle of whiskey, filled her glass to overflowing, and threw it down her throat in one gulp.

STOP READING

Minimize this browser window, turn your phone/tablet over, or somehow otherwise set this aside, and in your head or on a piece of paper, list all of the things you learned about Gladys from this little story.

GO.

WELCOME BACK!

This story might tell you that Gladys had a bad dream about losing her right foot. She lives alone and has a cat. She’s cold when she goes to bed but gets hot as the night wears on. Maybe lining up the slippers means she’s neat, organized, and particular. She’s frugal, recycling a bread bag for her ice cubes, which she doesn’t use much. She likes her whiskey, but must not drink it too frequently if it got buried at the back of the fridge. What does the fact that the glass is on the clean side of the sink mean? Or that she drinks the whiskey in one gulp?

The answers to these questions about what the story means is telling. To write in telling mode, the story would start out something like this:

Gladys had a nightmare that her right foot got cut off. She woke up at 3:17 a.m. thirsty for whiskey…”

The first story is written in showing mode – it describes the situation and it’s up to the reader to determine what’s going on. When you get really good at it, your showing can even make the readers feel things – you could have their hearts pounding right along with Gladys’.

As with everything, balance is important with showing vs. telling in writing. Sometimes telling is appropriate. And sometimes you can go too far with descriptions. A good rule to follow when trying to create balance with your showing vs. telling descriptions is that if your readers are likely to have an intimate picture in their mind about something, just name it. For example, everyone knows what it’s like to get out of a car so you don’t need to describe pulling on the door handle, putting a foot out, etc. Another example would be Grandma’s house – everyone seems to have a distinct sense of their grandma’s house, even if it isn’t the same for everyone.

The best way to get good at knowing when to show them and knowing when to tell them is simply to practice. Share your writing to see what others think. Try different things and see what works best.