In the first in a blog series of Creative Writing exercises, Creative Writing BA (Hons) Course Leader Dr Jack McGowan explains the theory of 'Show Don't Tell' and how changing the way we write can allow a reader to experience a story through thoughts, senses and feelings rather than through an author giving great quantities of background information or context (this is sometimes called exposition.)
What is 'Show Don't Tell?'
The phrase 'Show Don’t Tell' is thought to have been coined by the Russian Playwright Anton Chekov in a letter to his brother in which he said: “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of lights on broken glass.”
The "glint of lights" paints a picture for the reader rather than just telling them that the moon is shining in the sky. In practice, a 'Show Don’t Tell' exercise asks you to think about how much work you are doing for your reader and how much work you're letting them do for themselves.
Sometimes, the best writing allows us to make some guesses or connect the dots rather than just having the author tell us what they're trying to say. This kind of writing makes the reader feel part of the experience and makes the story more immersive and engaging. This idea was also used by Ernest Hemmingway in his analogy of the iceberg:
The reader can guess at what’s beneath the water, whilst you show them only the tip of the ‘iceberg’ within your writing.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”
Ernest Hemingway Death in the Afternoon
'Show Don't Tell' in practice
Here’s an example of this technique:
When we think of our favourite Grandma there are lots of adjectives we could use to describe her. These words are all really great for telling our reader about the character that we're trying to write but how could we show our reader that she's kind, sweet and caring?
Maybe we could describe what she is wearing: A bright white fuzzy cardigan with a smile always on her face or, maybe, we can describe her singing in the garden or baking a fresh batch of our favourite biscuits because she knows we are coming to visit?
These descriptions let our readers guess all the characteristics without us having to tell them that “she’s really nice, supportive and sweet.”
Writing Exercise: The List
This exercise will help you practise 'showing' rather than 'telling.' Writing the list is simple on the surface but has hidden meaning beneath it.
Write a list with a story behind it.
The list doesn't have to be long. It should have about 5 to 10 things on it, but, behind the things on the list there should be a story that the reader can piece together.
It could be:
- a shopping list
- a list of birthday present ideas
- a packing list for a vacation abroad
- a list of clothes in a wardrobe
- a list of guests at a party
- or, it can be anything else you can think of that might help you to hide a story
The hidden story
You might have a shopping list where the reader can guess that there might have been a nasty breakup involved and the list maker is having to adjust to the end of the relationship. This might look like:
- Milk (blue top)
- Ben and Jerry's (x3)
- Bin Bags (large)
- Microwave meals for 1
Or, what about a shopping list for children's birthday party? It may be one out of place item that is hinting at how stressful the birthday party has been to organize. This might look like:
- Chocolate digestives
- Party Plates
- Party Napkins
- Party Straws
- Party Hats
Remember the trick is to show your reader the story without telling it directly. There is no need to say “Organising the party was very stressful” they should have enough information to connect the dots and be engaged by the story that emerges.
Do feel free to experiment with the writing prompts and if it takes you in a different direction, that’s great. Studying creative writing is all about widening your horizons and experiences and trying out unfamiliar approaches, as long as an exercise is productive for you and your writing that’s the most important thing.
This is the first part in our Creative Writing Exercises blog series to help you improve your writing and to act as inspiration. Our Creative Writing BA (Hons) course offers chances to explore these ideas and many more in greater depth under the guidance of published authors.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.