“Show, don’t tell!”

Those are the instructions writers are often given. But what does that even mean? Isn’t writing, by its very nature, “telling” the reader what to imagine?

Well, yes, but this oft-given advice is referring to how you are telling the reader. Are you simply giving them the facts, or are you dramatizing the situation, encouraging them to feel like they are present in the scene and not just an outsider observing?

To demonstrate, I have rewritten a scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—the part where Harry and his friends meet a dementor for the first time. This is an example of telling:

A cloaked, creepy-looking figure stood in the doorway and reached out an ugly hand. Harry felt frightened. And then the thing drew a breath that made Harry wonder what it was trying to suck in. Harry gasped as he suddenly felt cold.

And here’s the original version, where J.K. Rowling shows us what’s happening:

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downwards, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak, and it was glistening, greyish, slimy-looking and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water …

It was visible only for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry’s gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of the black material.

And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it was trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.

An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart …

Can you see the difference? The first version isn’t technically wrong, it just doesn’t draw us in the way the second one does. Using phrases like “creepy-looking” to describe the creature isn’t as helpful as explaining why it is creepy-looking. “Harry felt frightened” explains his state of mind, but writing about his darting eyes and contracting stomach in addition to the details of the dementor’s appearance is much more effective.

The first example is the type of writing I often see from beginners. If you find it reminds you of your own writing, set your discouragement aside and be prepared to work at improving this technique! Good writers are always learning and improving; just like any other skill, most people are not automatically pros at prose (see what I did there).

Consider opening up one of your favourite books and trying this exercise yourself. Examining authors who are masters at showing can help you learn to insert sensory information and detailed descriptions into your own scenes.

Go forth and write!