Show, Don't Tell, But Why?

All the books on writing fiction have one commandment in common: Show, Don’t Tell.

It means the writer should tell you the visible, audible, smelly effects of what’s happening, but not what’s actually happening.

The back of Billy’s head felt hot. He smelled burning hair.

There. That’s showing. The reader is shown what Billy feels and smells, and we then guess that Billy’s hair is on fire.

Why is that better than, “Billy’s hair is on fire”?

The difference is reader engagement. If the writer merely tells you what is happening, you nod and hopefully continue reading, but that’s all.

But when the writer shows you what’s happening, part of your mind has to spin off and ponder what’s happening. “Billy’s hair is on fire” is a pretty obvious guess, but maybe this is an apocolyptic novel and, knowing that, our mind hypothesizes that hydrogen bomb has just exploded, it’s Billy’s last millisecond of existence, and he feels and smells himself being vaporized.

Which is it?

When the writer shows us what’s happening, we get to decide.


That’s my grandmother, my father’s mother, over there in the photograph.

Look at her for a moment. One hand is on her neck and it looks like she might be saying something. Her other hand is planted on a hip, the one that’s carrying most of her weight; see how that leg is straight while the other is angled out?

Off-hand, I’d guess this was taken before she was ready.

Don’t you dare take my picture.

Do you know how to work that thing?

Did you wind the film after the last shot?

Her posture tells me she’s got an attitude, and I feel sorry for whoever is holding the camera.

Reader Participation

Showing engages the reader. They have to participate in making up the story. They figure things out.

And isn’t that why we read fiction? To escape to another world? To feel what we imagine someone else is feeling? To feel the elation of defeating the bad guy because we know the ordeals our hero’s been through, and we’ve imagined the pain of his wounds, the pleasures of his love-making, and the agony at the decisions he’s had to make?

Or we feel the crushing defeat when everything he’s done has come to naught, and the bad guy is walking away with the love of his life bound, gagged, and slung over his shoulder.

Show me the man’s eyes, his fists, the curl of his lips.

Show me so I can play!

History began in 2023. Fiction and non-fiction publications are included as well as (blog) posts and supplemental materials from (2004-present).

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