- The “show, don’t tell” concept is credited to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- However, it was Ernest Hemingway, one of the best writers of his generation, who helped popularize this seemingly elusive technique.
- Drawing from his journalist background, Hemingway pointed out that writers can actually strengthen their prose by omitting, or leaving out, certain things. His “iceberg theory” states that:
- “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
If you think about it, both Chekhov and Hemingway suggest a kind of respect for your reader: readers should be trusted to understand your point without you having to painfully lay it out for them. And that’s what the concept of “show, don’t tell” boils down to.
- A powerful reading experience is one that allows the reader to experience and visualize the written word using their own devices.
- And that lays the foundation for some powerful writing when you set out to write a book.
- In this article, we’ll explain what exactly it means to show not tell in writing, and how you can apply it to improve your own craft as an author.
Here’s how to show, don’t tell in writing:
#1 – Know what it means to show, not tell
To show, not tell is a writing technique that illustrates what is happening or being conveyed, which engages the reader by allowing them to visualize, imagine, or feel an event, concept, or emotion through reading.
When you show and don’t tell, you are showing your reader what is happening, instead of telling them what is happening through statements.
By showing the reader what’s happening through words, the author is able to facilitate a reaction in the reader, by allowing them to use their imagination to conjure a mental image and invoke feelings of what they have read.
When an author shows instead of tells, they are able to engage the reader in the writing and improve the reader’s experience. This makes the process of reading more interactive, and memorable.
Authors that employ the show, not tell writing technique are able to improve their writing craft and development, and essentially “paint a picture” with their words. To become an author, you’ll need to master the concept of show, not tell in your own writing.
#2 – Understand why showing and not telling is important in your writing
Show Don’t Tell Explained: Examples of Turning Bad Writing into Great Writing
- Show, don’t tell.
- Any writing expert will tell you it’s crucial to learn how to show action through your writing instead of simply telling the reader about it.
- Learning how to “show, don’t tell” in your writing can make the difference between having your novel relegated to the slush pile or getting a great book deal.
- So what does it mean?
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
“Show, don’t tell” means you must demonstrate action through your writing instead of having a narrator just talk about action.
When you tell the reader that your protagonist is strong, brave, and intelligent, that’s telling, and too much telling makes for very boring reading.
Instead, you should show the traits of your character through action. You can write a scene where the protagonist carries huge bales of hay on a farm weighing a hundred pounds each to demonstrate his great strength.
You can write a scene where the hero must put himself in danger to protect someone he doesn’t even know to show how brave he his. For another “show don’t tell” example, J.K. Rowling wrote many scenes in which Hermione Granger had to solve complex problems in order to show how intelligent she is.
Simply put: instead of telling your readers that a character has certain traits, demonstrate those traits through action and scene.
When to Show vs. Tell
So when should you show and when should you tell the reader?
For the most part, you should show your readers information rather than dictate it to them…but not always. In fact, there are times you should just tell the reader something to save them time.
For example, if you had to write a scene to demonstrate every single trait of every single character in a novel, you would have to write a 500,000-word novel, and it would be incredibly boring and disorganized.
In general, you should show the most important ideas you’re trying to communicate to readers.
Anything insignificant or tangential to the story arc and development of characters and plot, you can tell the reader about (such as the fact that a certain character has green eyes). The fact that a character has a certain eye color isn’t going to affect the plot or character development, so it’s not important enough to require showing the reader.
However, if the character arc for your protagonist is that he’s a shy, weak, scared boy, who learns to become courageous and strong, that’s really the heart of the story—and so you absolutely must show that protagonist in scenes acting shy, weak, and scared, so the reader can truly experience the transformation as the character grows and develops throughout the story.
If you simply set the book up by telling the reader that the protagonist is shy, weak, and scared in the beginning, you’ll end up with a very weak story because when you tell such important information to your reader instead of showing them, your reader won’t build up empathy for your protagonist, and that character will be boring and difficult to identify with.
Point of View vs. Showing
Great writing requires mastery of POV (Point of View), which is the perspective or lens through which the reader experiences the story. POV is based entirely on the words you choose to use.
When you use the wrong POV or switch POV randomly throughout your writing, you are almost certainly going to get stuck telling the reader about what happened or what’s happening in the story instead of showing the action through the correct POV.
You can read about different types of Point of View to make sure you understand POV.
“Show, Don’t Tell” Examples
Telling: He knew something was wrong because he could see the fear in her eyes and that she was trembling.
Showing: She trembled and looked up at him with fear in her eyes.
Notice how much more powerful the showing example is here. It uses half the worlds but packs twice the punch because you’re seeing her in action demonstrating her fear instead of being told what one character noticed.
Note: It’s almost never the job of a character to notice something—it’s the reader’s job to notice and figure it out! By showing the action, you can have the reader and the characters figure it out at the same time, creating wonderful “aha!” moments that add up to a thrilling narrative.
Telling: Roger was never very bright when it came to figuring things out, and he could never seem to do even simple things right.
Showing: Roger had been working on the crossword puzzle for two hours; so far he had scribbled out more spaces than he had gotten correct. All he had to show for his hard work so far were ink stains on his hands.
Notice how this showing example demonstrates the characteristics of this character by showing that not only can he not even come close to completing a crossword puzzle, but he doesn’t even know that he should be using a pencil instead of a pen.
By showing how your characters behave, readers can interpret their traits and characteristics automatically, instead of you having to endlessly describe every character.
Telling: There was glass all over the floor, and a pool of blood behind the bar.
Showing: His boots crunched as he walked behind the bar. “Holy shit!” he screamed when he saw the pool of blood.
How to Turn Bland Sentences Into an Enthralling Story
She purses her lips, and wonders, Why does the story feel flat? Why does it seem to drag on? Where has the drama gone? Is it too long?
Okay, she thinks. Time to cut down my story.
She removes a few sentences here, scraps a whole paragraph there, shortens another sentence. After crossing out words for over 20 minutes, she’s reduced her word count almost by half. Phew. With a sigh of relief, she treats herself to Jasmine tea with carrot cake.
- But, hey, what happened to her story?
- It seems even worse than before.
- How come?
Sometimes stories are too short rather than too long
When a writer hasn’t painted vivid imagery, readers can’t picture what’s happening. That’s when a story feels flat. Devoid of drama. Dull.
To let readers experience your story, show rather than tell:
- Telling means giving a brief, factual statement.
- Showing means using sensory details and describing actions to direct a mental movie in your reader’s mind.
And the best way to learn the difference between showing and telling?
Firstly, study how authors use this technique in their writing. Start with the examples below. And secondly, practice.
Show Don’t Tell Examples: How to show emotions
To demonstrate someone’s emotions, think about what somebody does when they feel angry, hungover, or happy.
How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing
Most writers know that they’re supposed to show instead of tell, but what exactly does that mean? In a nutshell, it means that rather than directly “telling” something to a reader, you provide a context for the reader to infer the information. The same thing gets conveyed except it’s through some sort of action, making it more interesting and engaging for the reader.
Showing vs. Telling Emotions
Here’s an example of a short scene that relies heavily on telling to convey emotions:
“What’s that?” Jake asked curiously.
“Nothing,” Kate said, acting suspicious.
“It has to be something!” Jake was getting frustrated.
Here is the same scene with showing:
“What’s that?” Jake asked, leaning sideways to peek behind her back.
Kate twisted her body, hiding the package behind it, and took a step back. “Nothing,” she said.
“It has to be something!” He stomped his foot and crossed his arms across his chest.
Notice how the second scene uses descriptions to bring across the characters’ emotions. The blatant emotion words (curiously, suspicious, frustrated) are not needed, because the action “shows” the audience how the characters are feeling without having to “tell” them.
Showing vs. Telling Concepts
How to Show Instead of Tell
While reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, I came across a great example of the “show, don't tell” concept that many writing teachers promote. In the following section, instead of telling us how the son feels, Sanderson shows us how the son feels:
“The Codes are separate from the other two,” Dalinar said. “They are a tradition of old Alethkar.”
“No. They’re related, Father. All three. They’re tied together in you, somehow.”
Dalinar thought on that for a moment. Could the lad have a point? “Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”
“Yes,” Adolin said.
“Twice. And you made me listen to the passage being read another time.”
Instead of inserting a narrator's observation into the exchange, Sanderson lets Adolin's words show us that he is annoyed with his father's fixation on the story of the king carrying the boulder. It's what we might hear in a real back-and-forth between a father and son.
“Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”
“Yes,” Adolin sneered.
“Have I told you the story of the king carrying the boulder?”
“Yes,” Adolin said in an annoyed tone.
In both those cases, the writer is subtly inserting himself in the conversation, which can make the exchange feel less authentic. Such descriptions aren't horrible, but if you can mix some showing in with your telling, it will make your writing richer.
Of course, it also depends on what you're writing. I recently reread some of my favorite children's books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and books from the Nancy Drew series, and I noticed that, for young readers, authors spell things out a lot more than they do for adults.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.
3 Tips for Improving Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell is one of the most basic principles of narrative fiction. Defined in a nutshell, it is the technique that allows readers to experience the events of the story, rather than observing them. Showing readers what’s happening involves active verbs that evoke all the senses. Showing invites readers to inhabit the context of the story with the subtext of their own imaginations.
This is in contrast to telling readers what happened. Telling spells things out as simply as possible. It doesn’t evoke a character’s joy. It just tells readers “she was happy.”
Both showing and telling are equally viable and important fictional techniques. But the weight of a polished narrative should rest more heavily on showing than telling.
“The art of showing” is really “the art of narrative writing.” As such, it’s a technique all writers are constantly learning and refining.
In the last year or so, I’ve learned some things about my own use of this technique that have helped me take dramatizing vs. summarizing to a better level in my own writing.
That’s why, today, I want to talk about three ways you can up your “show, don’t tell” game.
What Show, Don’t Tell Really Means
First, a crash course.
“Show, don’t tell” is often one of the first critiques a fiction writer receives. Usually, the command is more than a little confusing. What does “show, don’t tell” even mean? You look at the passage your beta reader circled and you try to understand what’s wrong with the way you phrased it and how you could possibly have written it any other way.
Learning to recognize telling and differentiate it from showing can be a lengthy and sometimes less-than-intuitive process. I think many of us remember the moment when we suddenly got it and started recognizing telling in our writing and understanding how to rewrite it into more evocative showing.
Basically, the difference between showing and telling can be seen in the following:
How To Show And Not Tell In Short Stories
Writers Write is your one-stop writing resource. In this post, we show you how to ‘show and not tell’ in short stories.
‘Show, don’t tell’ is good advice for any writer, but even more so for a short story writer. The limited word count means our writing has to work harder. We really need to pack a punch. Here’s how.
1. Express emotion as action:
2. Choose a viewpoint character:
By choosing one character to focus on you make it easier for yourself to simplify your scene and make the most of it. Write small.
3. Use the senses:
Write a list of what your character sees, tastes, smells, hears, and touches. Then write about it without using the words see, hear, feel, touch and taste.
4. Be specific:
The more specific you are with your descriptions and actions the easier it will become to show.
5. Avoid these ‘telling’ words: is, are, was, were, have, had
6. Use dialogue:
This is one of the simplest tools to use. The moment your characters start talking, showing becomes easier.
Show, don’t tell is a very powerful writing tool. Keep practising.
- (You can also try our FREE COURSE: How To Show And Not Tell In Short Stories)
- Happy writing.
- Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a short story, sign up for our online course.
- by Mia Botha
- Buy Mia’s book
Ten Tips to Help You Avoid Telling Writing
Creative writing teachers love to dole out wisdom or advice about fiction writing, as if they're part of some esoteric order that guarantees enlightenment to all who memorize their pearls of wisdom.
One of the most often quoted axioms is: “Show, don't tell.” The idea is to keep students from explaining the story, that is, to stop them from using telling writing and get them to use showing writing instead.
Creative writing students have heard this phrase so many times it has essentially lost all meaning.
In fact, it has become such an entrenched part of learning how to write that we seem incapable of recognizing the statement fails to fulfill its own standards.
“Show, don't tell”? Pfft… Have you ever read a more telling sentence in your life? Never one to be content with the status quo, I have compiled ten tips that actually describe how to avoid telling writing.
1. Use dialogue
This is probably one of the easiest ways to avoid telling writing. Dialogue allows readers to explore the scene as if they were there. Dialogue can also help with characterization, providing emotion, and accentuating mood. Here’s a fun exercise: try to write a complete story using only dialogue.
2. Use the senses
Another way to avoid telling writing is to make use of the five senses. Evoking the senses requires readers to recall their own experiences. Try to focus on the underused senses.
Writers tend to focus on the senses of sight, touch, and hearing, but smell and taste are just as evocative. One of my favorite books as a kid was Jerry Spinelli's “Maniac Magee.
” It's the book that made me want to be a writer, all because of one phrase: “sweet onion smelling grass.”