Evidence and verdicts: a simple way to understand show not tell

Show not tell Nail Your NovelIf there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …

It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?

First, what is ‘show not tell’?

Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.

So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.

Don't mess with me. I'm a writer walking along a dark street

Relax. I’m a writer doing research

An example
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.

Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’

Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.

And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.

A big difference.

Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.

Telling instead of showing

Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’

Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.

Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.

Other things to consider about show not tell

Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.

Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.

There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.

Your reader is a witness

We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.

Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere’s lots more about Show not tell in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated  and Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & HeartWriting Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde

Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?

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  1. #1 by JackieP on January 24, 2016 - 7:03 pm

    I write my books in first person. Sometimes it’s really hard to show and not tell, sometimes it’s easy. I try to show as much as I can. I know most people find writing in first person hard, but that’s how my books just came out. I like how you use courtroom terminology for this. It does make it a lot easier to understand.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 24, 2016 - 8:10 pm

      Hi Jackie! That’s an interesting example, the first person narrative. I find it’s a tricky balance to present enough showing, when the natural disposition of the narrating character might be more judgemental. (Another courtroom word!)

      • #3 by JackieP on January 24, 2016 - 8:23 pm

        Exactly! So I try to show through facial expressions of others, body language and so forth. It’s tricky sometimes.

  2. #4 by DRMarvello on January 24, 2016 - 7:13 pm

    I like your courtroom analogy. It’s always nice to have a new perspective on an old problem. The witness analogy reminds me of the mantra I rely on most to show and not tell; relate the character’s experience, not the character’s observations.

    I can’t remember if you’ve talked about “deep POV” here, but the techniques for deepening POV have also been a big help to me. For example, replacing sensory words that add distance (like felt, heard,saw, and smelled) with a vivid sensory experience. The techniques that increase immediacy seem to also decrease telling.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 24, 2016 - 8:12 pm

      Thanks, Mr Marvello! ‘Experience versus observations…’ that’s another good way to make the distinction.

      And yes, deep POV is a good way to develop a more involving style. Distancing words can be swapped for actual experience .. that word again. I think ‘experience’ is the absolute key. I often ask my authors ‘what did they see, what did they hear’? It makes them think in a more vivid way.

  3. #6 by RSGullett on January 24, 2016 - 7:19 pm

    Thanks for this enlightening post. Definitely sheds light on some of my own writing shortcomings.

  4. #8 by acflory on January 24, 2016 - 9:38 pm

    Coming from a tech writing background, I had great trouble coming to terms with the difference between show and tell; the two styles are literally light years apart. Then, once I understood why to show, I had to grapple with when to show. As you say, not everything needs to be shown and sometimes, you may want to /stop/ the reader from dwelling too long on something; foreshadowing only works if you don’t give the game away!

    Put all the techniques together and the writer ends up walking a tightrope whilst juggling cats and hot cups of coffee. Or at least I do.🙂

  5. #11 by rileyjfroud on January 24, 2016 - 10:57 pm

    I love your courtroom analogy – it’s a great way for people to remember it!

  6. #13 by Carolyn Paul Branch on January 25, 2016 - 3:45 am

    You are so good at making a complex lesson easy to understand. I know I’ll remember the difference between evidence and verdict. Brilliant! Thank you!

  7. #15 by Lisa Ciarfella on January 25, 2016 - 4:40 am

    great post here. especially your analogy to the courtroom…

    when i did jury duty last year i remember the lawyers were great at showing when they “painted the picture” for us (the jury)….they could get real flowery and descriptive trying to make us feel like we lived through a crime of some sort…
    then, when the verdict came in, it was just a straight forward no nonsense recital read out loud of the facts – telling, for sure….

  8. #17 by Celia Reaves on January 25, 2016 - 2:24 pm

    Great way to show us how to show, and not tell. Thanks!

  9. #19 by Ann Heitland on January 25, 2016 - 5:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Ann Heitland and commented:
    I pleased to find, as I’m rewriting my first draft, that I did this right more often than not.

  10. #20 by bamauthor on January 26, 2016 - 7:00 pm

    Fantastic explanation of show vs. tell. I am currently involved in a legal case. You have made your case clear to me!

  11. #22 by Terence Kuch - Memorable Fancies on January 26, 2016 - 10:16 pm

    An excellent analogy for show v. tell! – Although when I’m reading a novel, sometimes for a minor character I just wish the writer would skip the lengthy evidence and get right to the verdict. Do I really want to know HOW Joe is a schmuck, or just THAT he is?

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 26, 2016 - 10:50 pm

      Good point about when showing is perhaps showing off… It’s all a question of priorities. How much do we need the reader to know about a particular character’s schmuckery? Thanks for the reminder.

  12. #24 by Keith Dixon on January 30, 2016 - 9:41 am

    I think a great exemplar of this is Elmore Leonard – he often presented a character through the perceptions of a different character, frequently a minor one. So instead of having to describe someone’s personality or appearance from his – Leonard’s – perspective, he would throw us into the head of a different character who ‘noted’ the behaviour, speech, dress of the first one. This showed the reader very clearly two things at once: the personality etc of the first character PLUS the impact s/he had on the second one, thus telling us something about him/her at the same time. I’ve probably made this sound more complicated than it is when you read it, where it’s crystal clear and very entertaining! Not wishing to hog the thread, but here’s an example from the beginning of chapter 2 of Glitz:

    ISIDRO LOVED THIS GUY TEDDY. He was Mr. Tourist, every taxi driver’s dream. The kind not only wants to see everything in the guide book, he wants the same driver every day because he trusts him and believes whatever the driver tells him. Like he wants the driver to approve of him. This Teddy bought souvenirs he sent to his mother in New Jersey. He wrote postcards and sent them to a guy in Florida, an address with a lot of numbers. He sat in the front seat of the taxi saying, “What’s that? What’s that?” His camera ready. Isidro would tell him, that’s La Perla. Yes, people live down there in those little houses . . . That’s San Cristóbal, that’s Fortaleza, Plaza de Colón . . .
    “What’s that? With the bars on the windows?”
    “Tha’ was the old jail of the city, call La Princesa. But now the jail is in Bayamón.” Isidro had to stop so Teddy could take pictures of the entrance, like it was an historical place.

    (Look how Leonard uses ‘historical’ here – catching Isidro’s imperfect use of English, adding characterisation … )

  13. #26 by taks1960 on January 31, 2016 - 11:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life.

  14. #27 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 4, 2016 - 4:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Re-blog by Roz Morris…

    Pure Wisdom: “Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.”

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