Show Don’t Tell in Fiction, Plays, and Screenplays

Show don’t tell is a maxim or technique that is extremely popular in Western story telling theory, whether it’s fiction, plays, or screenplays. 

It’s a simple little phrase, and has a fairly straightforward meaning. 

It means, don’t just tell your reader or audience something, it is far better to depict it, and let the responder form their own judgement about what they have seen.

When this is going really well, you show the responder a certain set of events in a way that guides them to form certain conclusions

For instance, instead of writing, ‘She was angry.’ Write, ‘She smashed her first into the wall.’ Or, ‘She narrowed her eyes and then stormed out of the room.’

Letter Review believes that one of the games going on between the writer and the responder is the game of communicating through the act of showing.

It is part of the fun of story to work out exactly what is going on in the story world. 

For instance, when we watch a man and a woman arguing in a film, we are trying to guess what their real motivations and desires are. If we are not told, but left to guess by simply viewing the people interacting, then we are intrigued and we are hungry for more information.

In other words, we are finding what we are seeing interesting and compelling.

How to Use Showing and not Telling in Setting

Another reason to show, and not tell, is that writers can transport their audience to a setting, and give the responder a sense that they are really there in the story world, or are experiencing some aspect of the world depicted.

For instance, in a film, two people are standing in a kitchen talking and one of them says ‘It’s a full moon outside.’

It would probably be better to let us see the person staring out the window, and then to show the moon. In this way the audience can experience the full moon as well, and we can start to guess about what kind of impact this moon is having on the characters too.

There is a great Anton Chekhov quote which further illustrates this principle in fiction writing.

“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” from Yarmolinsky, Avrahm (1954). The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov. Noonday Press, New York. p. 14.

You can see that instead of writing ‘It was a moonlit night’, it might be better to write ‘The light from the moon danced on the water.’ Its such a subtle change, but instead of ‘telling’ us about the moonlight, in the second phrase I am showing you the light on the water.