“Show, don’t tell” — How do you do it?

Good fiction writers “show, don’t tell” so their scenes seem real. What does that technique actually look like, and how can we apply it to scenario-based training? Learn more.

“Show, don’t tell” — How do you do it?

By Cathy Moore

Good fiction writers "show, don't tell" so their scenes seem real. What does that technique actually look like, and how can we apply it to scenario-based training?

Here are some tips from the free scenario writing style toolkit.

Easiest fix: Put dialog in quotation marks

Don't describe what people say. Have them actually say it.

In the examples below, which can you more easily picture? Why?

Telling Showing
Steve says he's concerned about the delay in processing TPS reports.“It takes too long to process TPS reports,” Steve says.
Javier is worried about an employee who might be using drugs."I'm worried about one of my team members," Javier says. "I think he might be using drugs."
Clara has been talking with the IT director at Acme and is excited to report that he's asked for a quote."Great news!" Clara says. "The IT director at Acme has asked for a quote."

Once you put words in quotation marks, you naturally start "showing" rather than telling in other ways, too -- like the following.

Write a movie

Imagine you're watching a film. How do you know what a character is thinking or feeling? By what they say and do. No narrator explains it to you.

Try to create the same experience for your scenario players. Don't describe what people are thinking or feeling. Instead, have them show it.

Telling Showing
Paolo doesn't want to talk about what happened at his previous job."What happened at your previous job, Paolo?" Sara says.

"Who wants another coffee?" Paolo says. "I'm going for a refill."
Mrs. Turanli doesn't want to join the other residents at breakfast and seems depressed."Are you coming down to breakfast?" you ask Mrs. Turanli.

"No, thank you," she says.

"Why not? You usually love breakfast."

"I don't know," she says. She's staring at the television, which is off. "I don't feel like it."

"Showing" often requires more text, and that worries some stakeholders. But it's more interesting text, because it lets the reader draw conclusions.

We're also simulating the real world, where no narrator tells you what to think. Realistic practice is more likely to be transferred to the job.

Don't tell "me" what I'm thinking or feeling

If you're putting the player in the scenario as "you," don't tell them what to think or feel. It not only feels fake, it pushes the player toward a decision that they should take on their own.

Brenda has missed three out of the last four meetings. You wonder if she's losing interest in the project.

In two days, you have to give the Wonder Widget presentation to 600 government officials. You're nervous because you haven't looked at the presentation in two years, and now you can't find it.

You've left three voicemails for Simon, but he still hasn't called back. You suspect he's avoiding you.

There's more in the free mini-toolkit

The free mini-toolkit on writing style has you practice rewriting "telling" into "showing." It also gives tips and hands-on practice with:

  • Recognizing and cutting unnecessary drama
  • Writing realistic dialog
  • Writing concisely

Check out the toolkit.

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