LISTerati: 10 Quotes about Showing vs. Telling

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell!” I can hear my first writing teacher belt out before our in-class writing assignments. And if you’ve ever read the old letter that David Mamet wrote to the writers of the Unit, you’re probably certain that telling must be illegal. But, everything has it’s place and this is no different.

Telling actually tells us what’s going on, where we are, and can move the story along. Showing gives us the viceral, emotional response to what’s going on. It’s where the five senses are drawn upon, where we sink into a scene and lose ourselves. It’s all about striking the right balance between the two.

What I’m learning from chapter 2 of Mary Carroll Moore’s book, Your Book Starts Here, is that Outer Story is about telling and Inner Story is about showing. However, if you find yourself in the doomed Land of Exposition, “telling” too much, or need some inspiration or a reminder about “showing,” you’ll enjoy this list of quotes from famous authors who believe that the ability to “show” should be in every writers’ toolbox.

1. “An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” -Stephen King

2. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?” -C. S. Lewis

3. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov
Yes, yes, yes, we hear you Chekhov! I love this example; it’s clear and to the point. You can find a wonderful breakdown of this quote here.

4. “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” – James Scott Bell

5. Notes: This scene was clipped from Chapter 11 “Complications.” It bugged me to remove it, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, so I let it go. When it was too late to put it back, I finally realized what was bothering me. Though I refer to Bella’s clumsiness in gym several times, I never really show it in action. This was the one time that Edward was “watching,” and thus the natural place to showcase that clumsiness. Ha ha.” -Stephanie Meyer

6. “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”  -Ernest Hemingway

7. If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. -Ernest Hemingway

This one’s probably my favorite Hemingway quote. I’ve found it to be true many times over when standing back for a closer look at my own work. If you want more of Hemingway’s tips for writers and an elegant, detailed description of his writing space in Cuba, check out  my favorite clips in this post. (And there are links to the full interview, too.)

8. Any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”. When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job. [..] any dickhead, as above, can write, “but, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all Europe will be engulfed in flame”.  –David Mamet’s master class memo to the writers of The Unit

 Yes, it’s crude, blunt, even offensive to some. But it’s also brilliant.

9. “When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886) -Anton Chekhov

Yes! We can see the ‘dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf.’

10. “Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. Let her live the story for herself as she lives real life, by experience.” -Jack M. Bickham

A few links to wrap it up:

  • If you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of Showing vs. Telling, check out this post. The writer does a brilliant job of explaining it.
  • Another really good one from The Beginning Writer blog.
  • My post with my Hemingway quotes can be found here.
  • You can follow my journey through Mary Carroll Moore’s book, Your Book Starts Here, here.
  • You can purchase Your Book Starts Here at Amazon.
  • If you want more wisdom from Stephen King, his book, On Writing, is one of my favorites ever. Some of the best advice on the craft of writing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

What are your thoughts about Showing vs. Telling? Do you have a favorite example to share? You can leave in the comments section below!

Happy Writing,


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