Write It!: Show, Don’t Tell

-->

As writers, you have probably heard someone, a teacher, a friend, or an older sibling, say to you that when you write you should “Show, don’t tell.” This advice seems to be a very important part of writing, but what exactly does it mean? Does it mean you need to illustrate your story? Are you supposed to act out your story in charades when you read out loud?

I don’t think so. While illustrations and acting both can be helpful in “showing” things, they are not what is meant by the saying “Show, don’t tell.” This simply means you need to be very careful in describing things. You need to use details rather than abstract words. After all, whatever you are writing is about something important and we need to be certain our readers “get it,” right? We also don’t want to mislead or confuse them.

Instead of letting our readers just listen to or read our writing, we want to talk with them in a way that lets them actively participate and feel a part of our story One important way is to avoid the overuse of abstract nouns—those vague, general words that mean different things to different people—words like love, hope, anger, time, truth, pain, death, life, infinity, etc. These are huge words with huge meanings that often can’t ever be precisely defined. Ask ten people to define these words and you will get ten different answers. That’s because these abstract words are tied to ideas and concepts—not to the sensory world we live in. They can leave one’s work weak and open to misunderstandings and confusion. Because we live in a sensory world we are more likely to understand sensory descriptions. This doesn’t mean we can never use abstractions, but it does mean that we should use them sparingly.
Remember “What is beautiful to me will not necessarily be beautiful to you.”

One of the best ways writers avoid abstractions and “show rather than tell” is by using concrete nouns (words that have to do with the senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) and images—ones which describe specific things or conditions. Sorrow is an abstract word. Tears and sobs are concrete nouns.

By using concrete (or sensory) nouns and details you can avoid “telling” language. For example, you can write a sentence telling your reader: An ugly man and a huge dog walked along the edge of the beautiful stream. Or you can show your reader with detail and concrete nouns: A sunburned farmer with a broken nose (concrete noun) and pimples (concrete noun) trudged through muddy puddles (concrete noun) while his Coon Hound (concrete noun, specific) sniffed at the damp reeds (sensory concrete noun) and tasted the cold clear water (sensory) of the river that danced its way down the sparkle of sunlight.

Now it is time for you to write a story with detail and sensory, concrete nouns that show rather than tell. Magic Dragon would be delighted to see some of your work.