Show not tell – the best explanation yet

As a writer, this mantra of show not tell is drummed into you repeatedly and I often find myself the one doing the drumming these days.

I’m reading Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing, Consider This (available as a pdf I just discovered), and he has THE BEST explanation of ‘show not tell’ I’ve found:

You may not dictate emotion.
Your job is to create the situation that generates the desired emotion in your reader.

Sounds simple, but what does it mean in practice?

Dictating emotion is ‘telling’ the reader how your character feels:

John was angry. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so angry.

Julie felt sorry for what she’d said to Joy. She would find her, right now, and apologise.

Ok. So we know John is angry and Julie sorry and what she intends to do about it. And that’s the end of it. The reader doesn’t have to do any work. They’ve travelled no journey with John or Julie. It’s all there, in black and white – done deal. Certainly the writer hasn’t done any work, so why should the reader have to?

Let’s try creating the situation that generates the desired emotion (can I do it justice?).

John clenched his fists, his nails digging into his palms. A sour, unfamiliar hardness rose in his gorge, choking him.

Here John shows physical signs of anger. The reader can feel the nails digging in with the force of those clenched fists, recall themselves being speechless with fury. Hopefully, they’re right there with John, experiencing his anger.


Julie tried reading. The words swam on the page, blurred by the tremble of Joy’s lips, the rush of tears which she’d gulped back before running from the room.
Julie had caused that tremble, those tears. How could she? What would she give to take it all back? She slammed the book shut and stood up. She’d find Joy, right now. Beg forgiveness before she lost the girl’s precious trust forever.

As well as showing how Julie was sorry, this version also gives the reader some context. Julie is trying, unsuccessfully, to distract herself and the reader has a picture of her sitting somewhere trying to read a book.

Why bother?

It takes longer to show than tell, but that also means the reader has time to get into the emotions alongside the character.

My popular short story, Sabrina Rising, is a great example of show not tell (says she modestly, but hey it’s won prizes!) Take a look here to listen to brilliant Canadian poet Jacqueline Belle read it as part of Story Time for Grownups to get the full emotional experience.

A useful resource for authors to help with showing vs telling is The Emotion Thesaurus. Highly recommended!

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