Don't Tell Me, Show Me!

Contributor: Emily Love. Lesson ID: 10831

Seeing is believing! Even if you can't see a scene with your eyes, a good description lets the eyes of imagination see and believe! Read classic story excerpts and learn to show readers what you mean!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Would you rather hear someone tell about a beautiful sunset or see a picture of it? What is the difference between the word "show" and the word "tell"? Write out a sentence explaining how the two words are different.

According to the dictionary, "show" means to display, or cause to be visible.

"Tell" means to communicate information in spoken or written words.

In other words, "show" focuses on making something visible, while "tell" focuses on communicating with words.

What does it mean to "show" and "tell"?

These two words can be used together. For instance, you may have had an assignment when you were younger where you were asked to bring something for "Show and Tell." However, when it comes to writing, you want to develop your craft to move away from simply telling your readers information; instead, you want to show them what you mean.

Consider the following sentence: "Marigold was bored."

This sentence clearly communicates information. You know who the subject of the sentence is, and you know that she is bored. However, read the next sentence to see how much more engaging this information can be if the writer were to show you instead of simply telling you:

"Marigold stared blankly out the window at the pouring rain. Heaving a heavy sigh, she leaned forward on her left elbow and began idly tapping the desk with her free hand."

The second sentence communicates the same information, but you can picture Marigold's boredom much more clearly!

How do you "show" and "tell"?

When you are attempting to help your reader visualize your topic, try stepping back and imagining the scene. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Can you hear any sounds? (Examples: Is someone playing music? Maybe you can hear birds or the ocean?)
  2. Do you smell anything? (Examples: Is someone cooking food? Maybe there is a skunk nearby?) 
  3. Can you see how your character feels? (Examples: Is he smiling? Does he look scared?)
  4. Why does your character feel this way? (Examples: Was he just given a present? Is there a bear behind him?)

The following passage is taken from Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. As you read the passage, answer Fogarty's four questions:

In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house in Torrance, California, a twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening. There was a sound coming from outside, growing ever louder. It was a huge, heavy rush, suggesting immensity, a great parting of air. It was coming from directly above the house. The boy swung his legs off his bed, raced down the stairs, slapped open the back door, and loped onto the grass. The yard was otherworldly, smothered in unnatural darkness, shivering with sound. The boy stood on the lawn beside his older brother, head thrown back, spellbound.

What did you hear, smell, see, and sense from the character while reading? Discuss the questions with your teacher or parent, then take a look at the list below to see if you were able to find all of the "showing" words and phrases:

  1. Hear sound of something immense moving through the air; sound of parting of air; sound of feet on the stairs; sound of the opening of the back door
  2. Smells grass
  3. Expressions concentration (he sat listening); excitement or anticipation (he ran outside); spellbound
  4. Motivations excitement and curiosity to know what is making this sound

Now that you have a good sense of how to communicate creatively, continue on to the Got It? section to examine some more excerpts.

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