Show, Don't Tell

(This is an extract from our Amazing Book Coaching (ABC) with Ahonu. For more info, click here.)

The difficulty begins trying to show when you’re writing, which implies telling! Your books are non-fiction but sometimes it is easier to show ;) the concept using examples from fiction, so here’s the difference:

Telling simply states the facts. You are informing your reader someone is tall, or angry, or tired. Or the weather is cold or hot or windy or blizzardlike. By contrast, showing paints a picture in your reader's mind. Your reader doesn’t need to be told because they deduce  everything from what you’ve shown.

So, rather than telling your readers that your client is tall, show other people looking up at him. Or show that client ducking to get through a door to your therapy session.

Rather than telling how your therapy helps overcome anger, you can show your student angry before he came to your treatment session. Show him slamming a fist on the table, his face flushing, his voice rising.

When you show, you don’t have to tell.

Cold when you began your healing practice? Don’t tell me; show me your students pulling up their collars, tightening their scarfs, shoving their hands deep into their pockets, turning their faces away from the biting wind just to get to your first therapy session.

Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch, fight dozing off. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders can slump. You might show a dialog where you say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look weary.”

When you show rather than tell, you engage your reader and bring them into your experience. Here are more examples:

Telling: He smelled of tobacco.

Showing: She pulled back from his embrace. “Somebody’s been smoking,” she said.

Telling: The temperature fell.

Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air.

Telling: Carmen was blind.

Showing: Carmen felt for the bench with her cane.

Telling: It was September.

Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.

So, is it ever okay to tell rather than show?

Yes, sometimes you must. In your case you may have to because, in the absence of characters like in a novel, the only way to describe a technique is to tell it, or list it out as a series of steps. So, use the technique of show don't tell where it fits, where it is appropriate and don't get hung up in trying to manufacture it if it doesn't require it. 

Remember, your reader’s imagination is more powerful than anything Hollywood can produce. When your book is well-written, it will trigger the theaters of the minds of your readers. That's why I encourage you to drop in your own stories, and show them, not tell.