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Writing : Show, Don't Tell




Art is all about evoking emotion. What defines whether art is good or not is how well it evokes emotion in the viewer/reader/listener (depending on the medium). Inevitable each individual will have a different response to every work of art, which is, of course, why how effective we consider a work of art is purely subjective. However, while opinions on art vary, they do tend also to have some common ground and this is due to the way in which emotions are effectively conveyed.

The principle which lies behind the effective conveyance emotion in art can be expressed in three simple words: ‘show, don’t tell’. This phrase is oft repeated, but I think it bears some explanation; it’s not always obvious what it actually means. I said at the start this article that art is about evoking emotion – the key word here is ‘evoke’. It is not enough simply to describe the emotions being felt, or indeed the emotions that the person experiencing the art is supposed to feel; that person has to actually feel those emotions themselves. For a work of art to truly have a profound effect on us, it must establish an emotional connection with us, causing our emotional responses to feed of its stimuli. Thus the artist should show us why we should feel these emotions by appeal to our senses, rather than simply telling us what emotions to feel.

Writing is appealing to the senses– describing the way in which a scene looks, smells, sounds and feels. This is harder than with other forms of art because the canvas is the imagination and the brushes are words
- neither of which is concrete.

The most obvious way examining this concept is through visual art. I would argue that Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ effectively evokes the spirit and hope of the revolution of July 1830 along with the pain and loss associated with it. I could go into immense detail about the painting, but Visual Arts never was my strong point and my purpose lies far beyond this humble masterpiece. Suffice to say that Delacroix’s piece is incredibly effective because it depicts a scene which evokes simultaneously great pathos and also great hope. We feel the emotions intended because we make a human connection with the Frenchmen (and women) depicted and understand their situation.

Contrast this Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’; a square of black on white canvas. While this was a challenging and evocative piece when it was first painted, one is left with a profound sense of apathy upon looking at it. The painting makes no emotional connection with us and so fails to move us. We might reason that black tends to symbolise death; it is a grim and foreboding colour which represents the pain and suffering of oppression. We might suppose then that Malevich was trying to present such emotions in his piece, presumably at the terrible social conditions in Russia at the time he was painting (1913), but at this point we are no longer feeling these emotions ourselves, but simply rationalising them. We are reflecting the emotions of the artist, rather than having the art create its own emotions in us. Malevich is, in a sense, telling us what emotions he is trying to convey through the symbolism associated with the colour black and the way in which that colour is presented. Delacroix, on the other hand, shows us why we should feel the emotions he want us to feel by depicting a situation that moves us to feel those emotions.

This same principle applies to all forms of art, but is possibly hardest to apply in fiction. Emotion is evoked, for the most part, by the characters in the story forging an emotional connection with the reader – but that is, perhaps, the topic for a different article. Emotion can also be evoked by descriptions of scenes, setting and events within the story to the reader. This allows his imagination to place the reader into the story, forging an emotional connection with him. This is done by appealing to his senses– describing the way in which the scene looks, smells, sounds and feels. This is harder than with other forms of art because the canvas is the imagination and the brushes are words, neither of which is concrete. Words are far better suited to examining the rational than delving into the emotional – how often are we lost for words when trying to express intense emotion? – as such it’s difficult to convey emotions through words alone. Effective descriptive writing appeals to the senses and forces us to imagine what is being described. The more vividly this is done, the more effectively we forge an emotional connection with it and thus it moves us all the more.


While it is very easy to tell the reader than one of the characters is feeling a certain emotion, we only really have the writer’s word for it.  The reader [should] feel he is playing a much more interactive role in the story, rather than simply being told what is happening by the writer.


Again the best way of exploring the issue is through example. Possibly the most popular example that springs instantly to mind when thinking of a book with poor writing is the Harry Potter books. I’m sure you’ve all read them (I think every literate adult has). Don’t misunderstand me, Rowling tells a wonderful story with some fascinating characters. However she very rarely stops and describes in detail what is happening and what anything looks, smells, sounds and feels like. The books simply contain one fascinating plot event and piece of characterisation after another, without even pulling the reader into the setting by painting it for us in our mind. While the plight of the characters moves us to feel great emotion, the writing very rarely does.

Compare this to, for example, Tolkien. You can say what you will about his plodding and convoluted plots, his turgid and sometimes impenetrable writing style, his slight obsession with the world he’s created to the exclusion of the actual plot at hand, but at times his writing moves us with its clear and powerful beauty. Tolkien’s vivid prose places the reader into Middle Earth and shows us what he want us to experience. Rowling has a tendency simply to tell us and so we never feel that we actually experience Hogwarts in the same way that we do Middle Earth. I’m sure thinking about it we can all think of novels in which we are drawn into the setting through beautiful prose; I’m sure we can equally think of novels in which we are not.

In the world of storytelling there is another aspect of ‘show, don’t tell’ which is strongly linked with the first once and is possibly somewhat easier to explain and demonstrate. Not only is it important to show the emotions that the reader should feel – and in many ways this is principally done through the actions of the characters and the events of the plot, rather than through emotive descriptions – it is also important to show the emotions that the characters are feeling. While it is very easy to tell the reader than one of the characters is feeling a certain emotion, we only really have the writer’s word for it. However if this emotion can be displayed through some action or words, or even through descriptions of tone of voice, it is far more convincing to the reader. The writer should show the reader what emotions the characters are feeling through vivid descriptions of their words and actions; this way the interpretation of the story is left up to the reader and the reader feels he is playing a much more interactive role in the story, rather than simply being told what is happening by the writer.

You can either write a whole new story, or take one of your older pieces and rewrite it. Either way, be careful not to take the easy route of telling, but rather take the time to show by appealing to the senses of your readers -and allowing them to interpret your character’s actions.

Fiction exists behind the walls that confine our imagination; the writer provides the link between the reader and his imagination be describing what happens. The writer’s role then, is not to interpret the actions of the characters and tell the reader what is happening, but simply to describe those actions and allow the character’s emotions to show themselves to the reader. The writer should not act as an interpreter for his artwork; instead he should simply present the art to the reader and allow him to interpret it for himself. This is essentially what ‘Show, don’t tell’ means. It defines the role of the artist as the presenter, not the interpreter of the art and hence the emotions being conveyed. For writers this is ever more important because his medium is the imagination of the reader; the stories he tells are transmitted from his imagination to ours through the words he uses. A well written story will transmit the imagination of the writer unadulterated, creating the relevant emotions in the reader’s own imagination, whereas a poorly written one will interpret that imagination and simply tell the reader what the relevant emotions are.

I want to end this article by issuing a challenge. I assume that most of those reading this are writers, so I want you to try to write a story in which you show, rather than tell your readers what is happening and what emotions your character are feeling. You can either write a whole new story, or take one of your older pieces and rewrite it. Either way, be careful not to take the easy route of telling, but rather take the time to show by appealing to the senses of your readers and allowing them to interpret your character’s actions. This is not an official competition; there is no prize for first place or submission date. Neither I nor an independent panel of judges will be judging the entries. This is simply a private challenge that you set yourself, aimed at making you all better writers, because, after all, self-improvement is what we all strive towards. Just remember as you are writing, whenever you are writing, three simple words; show, don’t tell.

Comment Here, or send your Feedback to Alex Mason at : alexmason10.6.92[at]hotmail.com
If you would like to take up Alex Mason's Writing Challenge and share with us the pieces that you came up with - send it in to us at 'submit[at]downrightfiction.com' 





Alex Mason is currently at Oxford university studying Ancient History and then eventually plans to move onto a career in writing - if all goes to play (which it rarely does, he says). Read more of his work at http://thoughtsfromafishbowl.blogspot.com/





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