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Involve yourself in a few writing circles, and you’ll soon hear this advice many times. “Show, don’t tell” is something like saying, “When you get up in the morning, you should wake up.” Sounds like pretty closed to the same thing. What’s the difference?

“Telling” is like a television football broadcast with the video turned off—the announcer saying, “The tight end made a fantastic catch.” Fans want to see the action, making the “fantastic catch” interpretation themselves. In seeing the play, they get to become the tight end, blasting forward, feigning left and leaping right in front of the defensive back, at the last second reaching the ball with his fingertips.

Writing John was angry tells a condition without describing the action. For readers to feel the emotion, they must see and hear John’s expressions, actions, and dialogue. With showing, you don’t have to say John was angry: While jumping up from his seat, John slammed his fist on the table, striking his cup, and spilling coffee all over his laptop.

Contrary to what we might think, readers aren’t helped when we make judgments, interpret actions, and explain situations. They want to be on stage, part of the show, becoming the main character in the action, surprised and affected by whatever happens.

As in the following examples, practice the transformation of simple telling sentences into progressive steps of more vivid, showing pictures.

  • Tim was unhappy.
  • Tim looked at his broken bicycle wheel and cried.
  • With one look at his bicycle wheel, Tim bent over to the ground and bawled.
  • With one look at his twisted bicycle wheel, Tim wiped a tear, bent over to touch the broken spokes, and whimpered like a puppy.
  • Janet was worried about her appearance.
  • Janet flipped her hair over her shoulder and tried to make the worrisome curl go back to where it belonged.
  • Janet straightened her dress and stood erect, leaning her head slightly, with a smile she hoped looked genuine.
  • After straightening her dress and teetering on her high heels, with a smile she hoped looked genuine, she stood tall and confident, turning her head slightly, letting her hair drift like waves over her shoulders.