The Idea of Showing, Not Telling, in Writing

It is the job of a novelist to draw in their audience and maintain their reader’s attention over the course of the story. While it is ultimately the author’s decision of where to take the story and what audiences they wish to appeal to, keeping interest is a task that becomes more difficult the longer the story wears on. To counteract this, techniques such as plot twists have become a staple in popular media, in an effort to keep readers on their toes and engaged. But in the pursuit of these tried-and-true tropes, it can be easy to forget some of the subtler applications.

No one wants to be told how to experience something. It tends to take away agency from the participant, and the loss of curiosity and sense of intrigue can quickly dissuade people from investing more of their time into the activity in question. The basic idea of Show, Not Tell boils down to giving the audience the ability to construct their own image of the events at hand while avoiding force-feeding them the answer.

Take the following example:

The sunflowers were beautiful.

Simply informing the reader what they should visualize does next to nothing in terms of catching interest and can be viewed as an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Liken it to reading only the conclusion of an article; you may know exactly what the author was trying to convince you of, but without the body paragraphs to take you through their reasoning and give support for this reasoning, you are left unconvinced and less likely to give the subject much thought at all. Being able to paint a picture for an audience with sensory details and choice words gives a reader the chance to interpret the mood for themselves, making it more engaging and better support the context of the scene the author is trying to display.

Revised Version:

Their mouths dropped. Spread out before the children was a field of sunflowers so bright and yellow their namesake would be jealous, almost glowing in the faint light. Three pairs of eyes sparkled with awe, and the frustration in the air was forgotten in the face of such an incredible sight.

As you may see, not only was the revised version more engaging for a reader, but it also allows for opportunities to better flush out the scene. We now know a general estimate of how many sunflowers there are, the fact that children are present, their current emotions, and that they were likely having an argument beforehand. Using the Show, Not Tell technique can work wonders in pulling a reader in.

Try it for yourself! See what you can interpret from the following passage:

The dry ground was quickly becoming damp under the cascade of tears. The women responsible feebly shifted through her purse, and brought out her little angel’s favorite chew toy, carefully laying it at the base of the small dirt mound. “I promise to never forget you, Felix.” Having used the last of her tissue packets, Katherine resorted to using her sleeve to plug the coming waterfall.

If you were able to guess that Katherine is mourning over a dead pet, then you would be correct. The passage has successfully showed you enough details to get a read of the situation, but nowhere has it explicitly told you that anyone had died. The use of sensory details is key, and good utilization of them can be game changing in keeping an audience invested the world before them.