Step 5: Show, Don’t Tell is a powerful weapon in the writer’s arsenal for engaging writing.
Text 1: ‘I hate the beach. The first reason I hate the beach is…
Text 2: ‘The beach. Sand in your pants, itchy sun-burn, squinty bright sky. Too hot on the sand, too cold in the water. No shade to speak of, and no peace to read a good book as screaming packs of kids kick sand onto your sun-dazzling pages. Oh yeah, some holiday.’
Well, we know what these writers think of the beach! But which of these two examples does a better job at evoking the writer’s feelings, prompting our understanding and empathy?
The film in your mind
After reading the two short texts to students, ask them to tell you about the character who is speaking and what they think will happen next.
You can bet they will have more to say about Text 2 than Text 1. Even though we aren’t given specific details, we have so many more clues to go on.
To show, writers use adjectives to evoke the senses (‘itchy’, ‘squinty’, ‘screaming’). When we write this way, we know how the main character feels. The writing starts in the moment, with the main character sitting on their itchy, sandy towel in bright sunshine, wincing as kids scream past, kicking up sand. We can feel just how grumpy they are.
Showing your reader is richer, more evocative and more visual. Telling is for those rare occasions when you want a summary or informative conclusion, or for a super-quick recap of events.
Show me the mountain, don’t tell me you’re going there
One technique to practise Step 5: Show Don’t Tell, is to imagine you’re ‘showing’ your piece of writing as a short film.
‘Show Don’t Tell’ can be overlooked because showing is subtle. Showing relies on restraint. The author knows what emotion or opinion they are trying to convey, but instead of telling it straight to the reader, they stage a gradual revelation.
- We see the mountain in the distance and the heroes ask what it’s called.
- A group of people come down the trail from the mountain carrying a stretcher.
- An old mountain guide tells them that no one has climbed it and survived.
- The heroes look at each other. They look at the mountain.
We ALL know that adventure is coming next.
Some of these stories tap into the classic story graph (the quest), while others are like little ‘mini-stories’ inside a narrative that help to back-fill the character and bring the writing to life.
Look through a few favourite books with students and pluck out some examples where Show, Don’t Tell is used to make a character and their motivation seem real.
Show, Don’t Tell Action Activity
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Looking for more?
There are over 30 Step 5 resources (for Show, Don’t Tell) on the Seven Steps Online Resource Library to use in your writing classroom.
To learn more about how to get students to Show, Don’t Tell, attend one of our Teacher Workshops: