Exercises to Make You a Better Writer

Writing drills designed to improve showing and telling.

If you’re still confused about the concepts of showing and telling, you aren’t alone and it isn’t your fault. This concept is very simple to those who understand it, but understanding comes with a sudden click; that one piece of information that makes everything fall into place. Without that click, you may know every detail and still feel lost. By the end of this article, you’ll have your click.

The easiest way to understand the differences in showing and telling is to think about the different ways a story can be told. There are three key ways to receive a story:

Witnessed
When you witness a story, everything you know is derived from the senses. Movies are primarily focused on this form of storytelling, with visuals and sound being the mediums at which the story is told. (Example)

Explained
A simplistic telling of what happened without unnecessary details. (Example: A creature wants to build a home, but misfortune puts a town in danger. Wanting to protect the town, the creature struggles to stop the danger. It succeeds, but not without a minor mistake. The village retaliates, unappreciative of being saved. The creature changes its mind and lets the town parish.)

Experienced 
Experiential stories are immersive. Your thoughts, reasoning, and emotions combine with the sensual experience of the event. Video games are a great example of this, though, even they are limited. The best way to understand is through comparison.

  • Explained: (Someone tells you, “I burned myself.”)
  • Witnessed: (You see someone touch their hand to a hot stove.)
  • Experienced: (You actually touch a hot stove!)

There is no comparison to actual experience, however, your reader is not going to touch their hand to a stove for a more immersive reading experience. It’s up to you to bring your reader as close to experiencing your story as possible. This is where showing and telling come in. Showing is allowing your reader to witness events, and telling is explaining information to your reader. If you only use one or the other, your story will be lacking. You should focus on showing (witnessing) and use telling (explaining) to clarify things so your reader doesn’t get lost, or can better understand.

Showing alone:
“Sarah hears the water sizzle from the other room. Vaulting over the couch, she runs to the kitchen and finds the water boiling over the pot. She grabs the handle, pushes the pot to the back of the stove, and her hand brushes the burner. She snatches her hand away and backs into the cabinets, dropping to a seated position on the floor. Her heart races, eyes dilate, and tears stream from her unblinking eyes.”
Showing with telling:
“Sarah hears the water sizzle from the other room pulling her attention from the television. She’d forgotten the potatoes. Vaulting over the couch, she runs to the kitchen and finds the water boiling over the pot. I’ve ruined dinner again, she thinks, chastising her stupidity. She grabs the handle, pushes the pot to the back of the stove, and her hand brushes the burner. She snatches her hand away and backs into the cabinets, an old memory resurfacing that she thought was in her past. She can see her father’s angry eyes, his sloppy face, can smell the whiskey on his breath; even though she knows he isn’t in the room. His voice screams, hands grab her wrists violently and hold them to the hot stove. She drops to a seated position on the floor. Her heart races, eyes dilate, and tears stream from her unblinking eyes.”

Notice in the examples above how showing allows us to witness what is actually happening while telling gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the reasoning behind everything. We get to hear the characters thoughts and see her memories. The action freezes for a brief moment while we dive into her past, which explains her dramatic reaction to a simple burn.

A dialog is another great way to use showing. Your reader learns the information through verbal interactions rather than narration. Be careful though, not to use dialog to dump information. Properly writing dialog is a whole other animal that we will have to tackle in another article.

Now that you understand the relationship between showing and telling a little better, let’s try a few exercises that will help you improve your writing.

Exercise 1: Write a short story — around 500 words — without using dialog or narration. Just like in the Example we saw earlier, you want every detail to be something that your reader can see or hear. Imagine that your audience won’t be allowed to read your work; rather, they will be shown exactly what you write and nothing more.

Exercise 2: Rewrite the same story using as few words as possible. Find a way to explain what happens and why it happens without using sensory descriptions.

Exercise 3: Put them together.

Let me know how these exercises went for you. Did you find them difficult, or were you able to separate show and tell with ease? Did this article help you to understand the concepts and relations of showing and telling? Is there an area in your writing you have trouble in, that you would like me to cover in my next writing tips article?