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What does "Show don't tell" actually mean?

Some writers misunderstand the phrase, “Show don’t tell.” One is distant and vague. The other is specific and involves readers in the story. You could write:

It was a hot summer day when Mary walked to the beach. She wanted see Tom and hoped he was not still mad.

This tells readers about the day. It presents a superficial look at the situation. The characters are not engaged. Events happen in a vacuum. This is want’s meant by telling.

Consider something different:

Sweat dotted Mary’s freckled face as the summer sun blazed down on her. She shuffled past the row of brightly painted houses on her way to the beach. Tom’s angry scowl from the night before came to mind; his jaw tensed; his face red. She was certain he would be on his surfboard as he was every day. Was he still mad? Would he talk to her? A tingle churned from her stomach to her chest.

Both examples give the same information. This second one allows readers to see Mary and Tom. It places them in a physical space. It also demonstrates both character’s emotional states with physical descriptions. The passage will have greater impact and stay with readers longer. This is what is meant by showing.


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