Updated: Nov 2, 2021
In your efforts to find tips on how to improve composition writing, you’ve probably come across the term “show, not tell”. We’ve all seen examples of this in the media. But for those of us not naturally talented in language, we have to learn the process of showing rather than telling. This is no easy feat when you’re an upper primary student struggling with descriptive language in Paper 1 Continuous Writing. But never fear, Learning Point is here – and today we’ll walk you through the single most effective tool to improve your language in composition writing.
What Does “Show, Not Tell” Mean?
Consider this example (using the composition question from our article on plot graphs):
It was Jeffrey’s birthday today. His friends were all coming over to his house to celebrate together with him. He was excited.
Now contrast it with this one:
Warm rays of sunshine came filtering through the curtains, and Jeffrey stirred awake. Then, he sat up with a sudden realization: it was his birthday today! His eyes lit up with excitement, and he leapt off his bed and ran to the toilet to wash up. His friends were coming over for a celebration at noon, and he wanted to get everything ready.
What made the second example better?
It’s longer because it uses more descriptive vocabulary, of course. But there isn’t any fluff – rather, it gives you a lot more detail about the character’s feelings and the setting, both of which are important to the story. In essence, the technique of showing not telling walks you through the actions, feelings, and relationships in the story. Rather than simply telling you what happened, we use descriptive language to help you visualize exactly what the characters are thinking, feeling, or doing.
Is the protagonist excited? Yes – but how excited?
Is he scared? What is he doing as this fear comes up? (Does he break out in a cold sweat? Tremble in his seat? Clench his fists to try to stop himself from shaking?)
Just as having a great introduction will help your composition stand out in the graders’ minds, using show not tell creates a more engaging story.
And in our experience, mastering this skill in combination with using suspense to develop your plot are the two most effective ways to boost your Content and Language scores.
How to Show vs.Tell: Step 1 (S.A.F.)
For starters, there are three main ways to use this technique: Speech, Action, and Facial Expressions. Just as mandatory military service is part of Singaporean culture, S.A.F. is part of good language use 😉
Let’s go through each one.
Tell: I was happy.
Show: “We are going to Disneyland! Hooray!” I sang as I danced around in jubilation.
Tell: I was happy.
Show: I skipped all the way home, humming songs in my head. I had just auditioned for the talent show, and I knew in my heart that I had been shortlisted.
Using Facial Expressions
Tell: I was happy. Show: The corners of my eyes crinkled with pleasure as a smile curled across my face.]
Key Takeaway: When describing a character’s feelings, ask yourself: what actions might he be doing to express those feelings? What might he be saying? What sort of expressions might appear on his face?
Now You Try!
Change the sentences below into show sentences using Speech, Action, or Facial Expressions.
Practice 1: Alex had not eaten since breakfast and was hungry. Practice 2: Joanne was sad as her pet dog had just died. Practice 3: Ezra had not studied for the test. He was very nervous. Practice 4: Chris was frightened. His mother had just caught him in a lie. Practice 5: John did not want to go to school. He was afraid of meeting the bully again.
How to Show vs. Tell: Step 2 (Parts of Speech and Literary Devices)
If you’re quite adept with the first step, congratulations! It means you have a more advanced command of the language. This means you can move on to Step 2 – analyzing the parts of speech and including literary devices (like similes) in your writing.
What do we mean by this? Here are a few examples:
Tell: I was hungry. Show: My stomach was rumbling like a runaway train. (Simile)
Tell: I was scared. Show: My heart was beating rapidly and I shivered with fear. (Uses adjectives and adverbs to give more detail)
Tell: He was happy. Show: Her face broke into a wide smile and she let out a squeal of delight. (Uses expression and sound words – onomatopoeia – to convey feelings)
Tell: He ran to the bus stop. Show: He ran to the bus stop as fast as lightning. (Simile)
Key Takeaway: Take a look at each part of the sentence and think about how you could more accurately communicate what the character is feeling or doing. If you’ve used any adjectives, are there any adverbs you could add on? Can you swap out or add on any similes, onomatopoeia, or expressions?
Now You Try!
Rewrite these short paragraphs using more adjectives, adverbs, similes, onomatopoeia, or expression phrases.
Practice 1: Adeline wanted to get her mother a birthday present, but the handbag was too expensive. She looked around the store. No one was looking at her. She took the handbag and put it in her backpack.
Practice 2: Jonah was sad. His father had promised to be home for his birthday, but the company had planned an important work trip on that same day.
Practice 3: Benjamin was running late for school. He got his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He jumped onto the bus, which was about to leave.