Show Don’t Tell – What That Really Means

You always hear writers give this advice. “Show, don’t tell.” But what the hell does that really mean, anyway? Nobody has ever given me a clear explanation. But I did figure it out by myself, and here’s the best way I know how to explain it: using dialogue tags.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. –Stephen King

If you’ve read King’s On Writing, you’ll recognize that witticism. It’s also true. And that’s because using adverbial dialogue tags is bad writing. For example:

“Put the phone down now,” Alicia said menacingly.

As King puts it in On Writing, “who farted, right?” We don’t want to be told that Alicia’s tone was menacing; we want to be shown. So how would we do that? Instead, we might write:

“Put the phone down. Now,” Alicia said.

That little pause afforded by the period imbues her statement with a hint of malice, a bit of a threat, which shows the reader how Alicia is feeling about what she is saying, which construes her emotions better than an adverbial dialogue tag appended to the end. Or we might change the verbiage to imply urgency:

“Drop the phone! Now!” Alicia said.

Or if we’re trying to denote a threat, perhaps:

“If you’re smart, you’ll put the phone down. Now,” Alicia said.

There’s no need to add that she said it “menacingly,” because the words themselves are menacing.

That’s it. That’s showing instead of telling. Simple, right? What’s the best or worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?

How I Know I’m a Writer #001

Am I insane? Tell me other writers do this so we can be insane together.

Reason No. 001: I’ll see a cute guy, and instead of approaching him, I’ll sink deep into imaginative thought, and five minutes later–after he’s long gone–catch myself concluding my summation of the entire hypothetical relationship, like, “We’d realize we only stayed together for the kids.” Am I insane? Tell me other writers do this, so we can be insane together.

Do you have any writerly quirks? I’d love to hear them in the comments.