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7.2: Showing vs. Telling

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  • Good description leaves readers with vivid, memorable images. When writing description, avoid empty descriptors if possible. Empty descriptors are adjectives that can mean different things to different people. Good, beautiful, terrific, and nice are examples. The use of such words in descriptions can lead to misreading and confusion. A good day, for instance, can mean far different things depending on one’s age, personality, or tastes. These types of words are also considered generic since they say very little. This being said, when you write descriptively, try to use specific details that create a picture in the reader’s mind as he or she moves through the text. For example, which statement below is more effective? Which are you more likely to remember and enjoy reading?

    1. Dinner was badly burned.
    2. The cheese in the lasagna began to bubble up and over the pan and onto the oven’s surface where the heat turned it black. Smoke then rose from the stains and poured out of the oven doors as the charred smell made its way across the kitchen and into the smoke detectors which started to blare.

    Most likely, you selected statement 2 because it creates a concrete picture in your mind. Do you notice the visual details and the use of smells and sounds? This technique is called “showing” vs “telling.” Statement 1 tells. Statement 2 shows.

    It may be tempting to simply tell because it’s easy. As writers, we know what we experienced when we write, “I was really nervous.” To our readers, however, “I was really nervous” does not convey precise information. As a writer, I need to think how I can show rather than just tell. How did I feel and exhibit nervousness on that occasion? Did I imagine the worst possible outcome? Was my breathing shallow and rapid? Did my hands tremble?

    Telling: I was really nervous when I asked my boss for a raise.

    Showing: As I approached the door, certain that I would instantly be fired for asking for a raise, I wiped my clammy hands on the front of my pants one last time. Beads of sweat formed on my upper lip, and I could feel my paltry breakfast of dry toast and too much coffee buzzing in my stomach.

    Exercise 2

    If you already have a narrative or descriptive essay assignment, turn a “telling” statement about someone or something in your essay into a “showing” passage. If you are not currently working on an assignment, turn a “telling” statement about someone or something within ten feet of where you are now into a “showing” passage.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    Telling: Aunt Bunny was drunk.

    Showing: At the buffet table, Aunt Bunny swayed slightly, like a featherweight after a sharp jab to the jaw, as she attempted to spear a slippery meatball with a plastic fork.

    Telling: Grandma was angry.

    Showing: Grandma glared at Barry, daring him with her squinting eyes to light the firecracker in his hand. She clutched a large wooden serving spoon in her left hand, ready to put it to work on her grandson’s rear end.

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