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How to show not tell in creative writing

Show Don’t Tell: How to Show Not Tell in Writing With Exercises

Learning how to show don’t tell in writing is one of the most difficult—and important—parts of writing when you first start.

It’s what will give readers the coveted emotional attachment that forges true, long-lasting fans (and customers!).

Part of writing and publishing a book successfully is ensuring you have the highest quality writing, and this rule of show don’t tell is crucial for that.

When you start writing a book, it’s as if everyone around you becomes the expert. They tell you to show don’t tell, start with action, or even embellish your stories to sound “better.”

But how do you know what advice to take…and what do those writing tips even mean in the first place?

We’re here to help you understand showing versus telling and how that will actually help you write better and stronger.

It’s safe to say that the idea of showing not telling is one all writers should pay close attention to.

Show don’t tell in writing is a piece of advice that’s been around for longer than you might realize. Even if it didn’t have a phrase attached to it yet, the best authors out there have been using it for the duration of their careers (and even before, most likely).

Here’s how to show don’t tell in writing:

In fact, it’s why they’re known as the best writers of all time.

But although these writers knew how to bring their writing to life instinctually, not all of us are so lucky. We have to learn the process of show don’t tell, which can be tricky if you don’t know where to start.

Want to know which author you’re most like? Take the quiz and learn more about yourself and your writing style!

What does show don’t tell mean?

Show don’t tell describes writing in various forms with an emphasis on using and showing actions in order to convey the emotions you want readers to interpret, which creates a better experience for readers, instead of writing exposition to tell what happened.

By showing the actions and relationships and feelings instead of just telling the reader what happened, the writing comes off deeper, and more meaningful. This creates a much deeper connection and brings readers closer to you (or the main character).

At a first glance, this writing rule could be confused for the best day in Kindergarten when you bring your pet lizard in to show the class.

But in actuality, show don’t tell refers to the way in which you describe the experience you (or your character) went through.

And that makes them feel deeper and stronger about the story. It creates empathy and invests the reader – which is exactly what you need.

Writing your book introduction with an abundance of showing not telling is a powerful way to draw readers in for the duration of your entire book.

But this technique is much easier shown than told (hehe – see what I did there?).

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Show Don’t Tell Examples:

These examples are pretty basic but that’s the best way to gain an understanding of what this looks like. Keep in mind that your sentences may be more complex than these examples, but still full of “tell” words or phrases.

Be on the lookout for the details.

Show Don’t Tell Example #1:

Tell: “I heard footsteps creeping behind me and it made the whole situation scarier.”

Show: “Crunching hit my ears from behind, accelerating the already rampant pounding of my heart.”

Why this showing example is better:

In an instance such as this, you want the reader to feel what you did: the surprise and the sense of urgency, the fear.

Describing the crunching that hit your ears even through the pounding of your heart not only creates a powerful visual, but it also tells the reader the state your body was in during that intense moment. The first example is weak and does little to explain how you actually felt in that moment.

Show Don’t Tell Example #2:

Tell: “She was my best friend. I could tell her almost anything.”

Show: I met her at the town square, running in for our usual hug that carried on for far too long as we gushed about our lives with smiles lighting our faces.”

Why this showing example is better:

The first example of telling is shorter, but it doesn’t do a great job of really showing the impact you have on each other. Anyone can think of “best friend” and form an overall thought about what that looks like. But this isn’t just “anyone.” This is your best friend. Showing your relationship with one another is vital to forging that deeper connection.

Why should you show don’t tell in writing?

The entire point of showing versus telling in writing is to make a stronger emotional connection with your readers and hook them.

They already picked up your book for the killer title and eye-grabbing cover, but they need a reason to stay.

The idea behind this writing technique is to put the reader in your shoes. Make them feel, hear, and sense the situation as you did.

It’s about creating an experience for the reader instead of just a recount of events.

Doing this makes the reader want to root for you. They want to hear your whole story and in turn, they’ll read your whole book.

Why is showing not telling also important for non-fiction?

If you write fiction, you hear this advice all the time. However, all of you non-fiction writers out there, this piece of writing advice might be new to you.

Show don’t tell isn’t always the first thing a non-fiction writer thinks of when it comes to adding more intrigue to your story.

But it is the most vital for pulling your reader in and not only hooking them, but keeping them with you throughout the duration of your book.

Many fiction writers hear this writing advice often because it’s one of the best ways to make real people feel deeply for fictional characters.

When it comes to writing a story about your life and something you went through, the idea is the same. By showing and not telling, you’ll be able to guide them through your real-life situation as an experience and not just some book they’re reading while the kids are yelling at their video games and the oven alarm is blaring in the distance.

If you can show don’t tell the right way, the reader won’t even notice those distractions.

How to Show Don’t Tell in Writing

So now you know what it is and why it’s important, but how the heck do you actually do it? The process of taking a single story and crafting it to create more emotion can be difficult.

Thankfully, we have some of the best tips for showing not telling in writing.

#1 – Get rid of all basic sensory words

Phrases like, “I heard,” “I felt,” and “I smelled,” are all very weak. These are “telling” words and phrases (also commonly referred to as “filters”) that force the reader further away from you and your experience.

That’s exactly what you want to avoid.

Instead, you need to pull them into your world and into your psyche the very moment you were encountering the situation.

This is done by using strong verbs and other visual language.

Show Don’t Tell Exercise #1:

Step 1: Read through your writing and circle every telling word you can find. Anything that explains one of the 5 senses.

Step 2: Then write down specifics for each. If you heard someone creeping up behind you, how did you hear it? Was it crunching on gravel? Was it the shuffling of shoes against carpet?

Once you have these, rewrite those sections by explaining how the senses manifested to you and not just what you sensed (detailed below in the next writing exercise).

#2 – Don’t use “emotion explaining” words

This might be a bit tricky and you certainly don’t have to follow this one 100% of the time, but if you can get this right, it’ll make showing versus telling so much easier to grasp.

Think of any word to describe an emotion. I’ll help you out a little:

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

These are all great words to describe how someone felt. However, they’re also very weak, unexciting ways to do so.

If you need your readers to understand how excited you were at any given time, show them. Don’t just tell them, “I was so excited!”

Show them the sweat beading your forehead as you raced to your destination. Show them the lifting of your cheeks as your lips parted way for an uncontrollable smile.

Show Don’t Tell Exercise #2:

Skim through your writing and circle every word that’s an emotion.

Then, for every emotion-explaining word you find, write down physical reactions of feeling that way.

Once you have a small list for each circled word, use it to craft a couple of sentences to describe (and show!) just what that looked like.

You can see the difference alone between these two paragraphs. By replacing all of the “telling” words and phrases, it develops into an experience for the reader and not just a retelling of what happened.

#3 – Describe body language

One of the best ways you can show not tell in writing is to use strong descriptive language when it comes to body language.

A person’s actions are really a gateway to their mind and how they feel.

You can tell if another person has a crush on someone just by paying attention to the way their body adjusts when in that person’s presence, right?

Showing versus telling in writing is exactly that. You want to show the reader what is happening and allow them to form a conclusion about how you or others in your story felt based on what they look like.

In all honesty, a lot of this one is about having faith that your audience can put two and two together.

Oftentimes, we tend to over-explain in an effort to make something obvious when really, the emotion is in the guesswork; it’s in allowing someone to draw their own conclusions. That over-explaining is what comes across as “telly” and not as emotionally compelling.

And honestly? It’s also pretty boring and flat.

If you do a great job of showing what you want readers to see, they’ll understand how someone feels – and they’ll even feel that way themselves.

That’s the power of showing not telling.

#4 – Use strong verbs

Showing itself can be extremely impactful, but using strong language and verbs in specific situations is even more powerful for adding depth to your story.

The way you make someone else actually feel how you did as you were going through the experience is to make sure the words you’re using directly reflect the emotions .

This can be a difficult task for those who aren’t sure what “strong language” looks likes, but I’ll make it easier for you.

Show Don’t Tell Exercise #3:

Think of a situation you want to explain in your book (or maybe something you already have written out).

Now imagine what feeling you want to convey through that scene. What do you want your readers to take away from that specific moment in your story? List those emotions so you can see all of them.

Take that list and start writing ways in which you can bring those emotions to life. What do those things mean for you? How would these emotions manifest during that specific time?

Now take those stronger verbs and words that depict a deeper emotion and craft your sentence or paragraph with those to reflect how you truly felt.

How does this sentence make you feel? Do you feel comfort, relaxation, and a sense that I love being there?

That was the purpose.

It’s about taking one specific idea or vibe or feeling and using what you know to transform it into something that’s showing not telling.

This specific example for show don’t tell can be a little time-consuming at first, but you will get the hang of it and these methods will soon become second nature to you.

#5 – Focus on describing senses

We told you to cut sensing words in tip #1, and that’s true, but with this comes the fact that you still have to describe what your character is feeling and sensing.

Showing versus telling is largely about allowing your readers to interpret what your characters are going through without just telling them.

This often means using all the senses you can to depict a scene.

Instead of saying, “She hated it there.” you can use her senses to show the readers that emotion.

For example: writing with showing like this “The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke met her nostrils, pulling her face into a familiar grimace.” allows your readers to understand that she finds where she is distasteful, without having to just say so.

#6 – Practice showing not telling every day

To master the tip of show don’t tell in writing, it takes time and practice to get it right. There’s a fine line of using showing versus telling in your writing.

With regular practice (by writing every day, we suggest), you’ll learn when to use telling and when to use showing in order to give the reader the best reading experience they have.

You can even practice by reading other books and your own writing. Recognizing areas of showing can help you do it more in your own works.

How to Show – Not Tell – in Your Writing

Have you ever heard you should “show and not tell” when writing? In today’s post we’ll explain exactly what that means and share some tips to help you master the art of “show don’t tell” in your writing.

One of our primary urges as humans, and especially as writers with a story to tell, is to be understood by those with whom we communicate. We want, above all else, to be received and to have our stories received as complete with our own intent as possible.

Our audiences, whomever they may be, are as vital to us as writers as the characters that inhabit our stories, real or fiction. There exists, however, a line that defines the boundary between telling the story and telling your reader what is happening.

What Does Show and Don’t Tell Mean?

In writing, the term “show don’t tell” means to write in a way that allows your audience to fully experience the setting, characters and action in the story. As a writer, it’s important for you to not merely state facts but to connect with your audience and draw them into the story.

Imagine you are in a car being driven along a scenic highway. It winds through mountains and valleys, forests of trees and meadows of glorious flowers, pastoral farmlands and quaint village streets lined with unique old homes and storefronts decorated for the holidays.

I haven’t provided a lot of description, but you get the general idea. There are a lot of sights to see and experiences to take in.

Now, imagine you’re being driven through this majestic landscape in the back of a box truck with no windows, and the driver is telling you what you pass when you pass it.

In this instance, you can’t see what is going on. You only hear the driver describing what is going on around you. Sure, you might have a good idea of what is going on around you, but you’re missing out on a big, enjoyable piece of the experience.

It is the same for us when writing – telling instead of showing deprives the audience of something vital to the work itself. This is why it is important as writers of fiction and expository non-fiction that we not sacrifice art for expedient clarity, because that is why our readers come to us – for that experience. That is why it’s important to know when it’s okay to tell and when it is better to show the reader instead.

What’s the difference between showing and telling?

“Bill,” you say, “isn’t all writing just telling? I mean, we’re telling a story, right?”
The answer is yes – and no.

Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, describes the connection between writer and reader as a form of telepathy – a way for two individuals to share thoughts, ideas, stories, and images across space and time.

Our job as writers is to build the space in which we share thoughts and stories with the audience. Like good architects, we don’t build with the expectation that we will have to explain every ogive and buttress to the reader in explicit detail. Some parts of what we build are there to be discovered.

In writing, this means displaying certain key traits of characters and settings in ways that the reader will understand but aren’t direct exposition. The key is in understanding what is okay to tell and what is better shown.

How to Show, Not Tell What You See

Let’s start with what it is okay to tell in your writing: Basic facts, colors of rooms, whether the curtains are opened or closed. File all that under “physical description of people, places, and things” and call it a day.

The mundane (but relevant) details of the world inside your text can be easily described in a manner described as “telling”.

The key to “showing and not telling” is to use your descriptive language in a way that it evokes a certain mood and tone. It clearly conveys how the character is feeling about a situation without ever coming right out and saying it.

Consider this example:

Jack stepped off the elevator and onto the fourth floor. Gray, shoulder-height cubicles stood in parallel sets up and down what was described to him as an “open office space”, with narrow, labyrinthine corridors bisecting the rows at odd intervals. Windows lined the outside walls of the building, though none of them were visible without standing to peek over the edge of one of the charcoal colored boxes, and the space between the outer rows and the panes of glass was barely wide enough for two adults to walk abreast.

Fluorescent lights blared down from the tiled ceiling, calling attention to several brown water stains. Aside from the low thrum of the air conditioning, the muted ringing of telephones, and the seemingly far-off drone of human voices, the place was eerily silent.

Jack could see the woman he was looking for carrying a bundle of papers close to her chest as she made quick, practiced movements through the cube farm towards its center where stood a raised platform, surrounded by low walls and plexiglas windows in aluminum frames. There were no straight lines that led to the dais, so he watched the woman and tried, best as he could, to plot a converging course.

I used to work in such a corporate hellscape, which is why describing it comes so naturally to me. This is pretty much straight descriptive narration, but you can probably tell how I feel about this sort of work environment through the use of certain words – blaring lights, inaccessible windows, that word labyrinthine evoking images of Minotaurs and inescapable dread, the dreary colors.

With this example, you know exactly what I am feeling about this space – but I never directly tell you, and I don’t need to. And that, dear reader, is the “show” part of the lesson – the intangible details and feeling surrounding a person, place, or thing, with an emphasis on feelings.

As writers, we should guide people towards ideas, but never spoon-feed the reader. Like in the film Inception, if the idea you are trying to put across doesn’t feel organic – if the reader doesn’t believe they came to it on their own – the brain/reader is likely to reject it.

Now, a reader might not reject the idea of a company cube farm being an oppressive work environment, but, if you come straight out and say it, they’re bound to get bored with your prose and leave the story behind for something more engrossing.

As an example, I could tell you about Jack, our character from the above excerpt, and his personality. However, it would be more effective to show you through his actions. Let’s continue this story and further illustrate showing and not telling.

“Excuse me, Ms. Singer?” Jack said as he stepped onto the dais in the center of the office. He could see the green tops of trees in the courtyard out the windows from where he stood now. There sat a table with a coffee pot steadily percolating and all the fixings one could want at the narrow entrance to center stage, and larger desks populated the crowded space.

The woman he’d been following distributed her papers among the desks, never breaking her quick-step pace. Jack produced his badge and stepped into her path. “It is Ms. Singer, isn’t it?”

She came to a sudden stop. Her lips drew taught across her face, brows furrowed; she sighed and shifted her weight. “Yes? How can I help you?” she asked.

Jack gave a thin smile, introduced himself, and put his badge away. “I’d like to ask you a few quick questions about your associate, Mr. Bonelli. He worked here with you, correct?”

She shifted her weight again from one heel to the other. “If you need to confirm employment records, I would recommend speaking with human resources. They’re on the first floor.” She moved to slip through beside him.

He moved to block her, hands raised just to his chest with the palms facing out. “Won’t take but five minutes of your time; I promise.”

“I really don’t have anything to say about Mr. Bonelli and I don’t have five minutes to spare,” she replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m very busy.”

He cut her off. “If that’s the case, I’m going to ask you to stop by the precinct on your way home this evening so we can get these questions answered.”

She propped a fist on her hip as she replied. “Do you have a warrant? Subpoena?”

Jack shook his head. “No, ma’am. All the same –.”

Ms. Singer’s features went from a frown to a bright smile. “I have no interest in talking to the police about anything unless I have a lawyer present and the District Attorney issues a subpoena for my testimony. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she said as she skirted past him on the inside, “I have more papers to pickup for this morning’s meeting before the executives get here,” she finished as she swept deftly through the narrow entrance and down the aisle, clipping the edge of the table at the entrance with the hem of her skirt.

Jack watched her another moment as she swept down the rows, not even looking at where she stepped. He took a deep breath and held it a moment, knowing full well he couldn’t compel the woman to give a statement. He started on his way back towards the elevator, stopping at the table with the coffee and fixings to pull it two inches closer to the entrance of the dais and ever so slightly into the pathway through the bullpen, then left the same way he came.

He stopped at human resources to confirm Mr. Bonelli’s employment history – and to ask if they kept a first aid kit in the office. Sure enough, they had one. He needed a bandage, he explained, for a hangnail that had gotten caught somewhere, and then passed his card to the attending HR specialist. “If you see Ms. Singer today,” he said, “give her this for me. Looks like we missed our chance to connect this morning. Hopefully I won’t miss her again.”

In this passage, we discover that Jack works for law enforcement, without ever directly saying that Jack is a police officer. We also get a peek into Jack’s personality in this passage.

While it is true that it takes longer to come to the conclusion that officer Jack can be a bit of a jerk (and a snarky one at that) this way than if we had just came straight out and said so, you can see the difference clearly in how the news is delivered.

If the author/narrator provides the reader with a piece of information directly, it doesn’t seem as valid. In order for you to accept it, you must discover it as the reader.

That discovery by the reader is what makes your writing genuine – the idea is clearly communicated through our channels of telepathy and received and accepted on the other side by the reader.

Always Have a Purpose While Writing

One thing to consider when showing or telling is this: it’s important to stick to details that are relevant to the story being told and to keep the showing actions of your characters within the scope of their personality.

Having a good idea of who your characters are is fundamental to building a believable narrative. Equally important is sticking to that scope of behaviors when writing for your characters.

Going back to our example, we might believe Jack may be a jerk, but he’s acting within the scope of his own morals. He is attempting to solve a crime and this person is obstructing his path towards that end.

In his mind, that justifies the small calamity he prepared that may (or may not) end up getting him the interview he needs. If this bit of his personality doesn’t jive with the rest of the story, or serve a purpose to further the narrative, then it doesn’t belong here. Never show (or tell) information about a character or setting without considering this first.

When you write with purpose, it’s easier to understand what details should be told and which ones are shown.

Showing and not telling in your writing can take a bit of practice to fully master. One of the best ways you can master this art is through the help of creative writing exercises. You can also try your hand at showing and not telling using many of our creative writing prompts.

How do you show and not tell in your writing? Share your struggles or tips in the comments section below!

Show, Don’t Tell: Tips and Examples of The Golden Rule

Show, don’t tell is one of the most frequently given pieces of advice among writers. But just like “write what you know” and “write every day,” it can be difficult to follow — especially if you don’t really know what it means! Luckily, we’re here to show you exactly what this involves. We’ll explain the various benefits of “showing” in writing, and provide plenty of helpful examples.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’: A Quick Definition

Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to “be in the room” with the characters.

In his most commonly repeated quoted, Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In short: showing illustrates, while telling merely states. Here’s a quick example of showing versus telling:

Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath as the wind brushed past the curtain.

Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.

In the “showing” example, rather than merely saying that Michael is afraid of the dark, we’ve put him in a situation where his experience of that fear takes center stage. The reader can deduce the same information they’d get from the “telling” example but in a much more compelling way.

The Benefits of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

Showing also helps develop characters in a way that isn’t just listing their traits. For instance, rather than telling your readers that “Gina was selfish and immature,” you could show this side of her by writing a scene where she whines about how everyone forgot her half-birthday. Or if you have a character who’s extremely determined, show her actually persisting through something — don’t just say “she was persistent.”

Overall, when done right, showing draws readers into the narrative with truly immersive description. It contributes to story development but also leaves certain things up to the reader’s interpretation, which is much more interesting than making everything explicit. (Though of course, you can still use language to alter their perception).

The bottom line: telling might be quicker, and it’s certainly necessary to have some telling in every story (more on that later), but showing should almost always be your prime strategy.

All right, that’s enough theory for now! Let’s talk about how you can show, not tell, in your own work. Here are five key tips on how to show rather than tell in a story

4 Practical ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Tips

Let’s start with one of the most important aspects of storytelling.

Tip #1. Create a sense of setting

One of the best ways to show rather than tell is to create a sense of setting. You can do this by writing about how characters perceive and interact with their surroundings, weaving plenty of sensory details and occasional action into the scene. This is a particularly good way to lend immediacy to your story, as the reader should be able to imagine themselves in that very setting.

Telling: I walked through the forest. It was already Fall and I was getting cold.

Showing: The dry orange leaves crunched under my feet as I pulled the collar up on my coat.

Tip #2. Use dialogue to show character

In addition to setting, you can also use dialogue to demonstrate story elements beyond the surface conversation. A character’s speech will tell the reader a lot about them, especially when they’re first being introduced.

Do they use long sentences and polysyllabic words or do they prefer short, punchy replies? Are there likely to use slang and call an authority figure “dude” or “fam” or will they address them respectfully as “Mr. So-and-So”?

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Tip #3. If in doubt, always describe action

“Telling” almost always grinds your narrative momentum to a halt. Imagine having to describe the setting every time your characters enter a new space — any pace you had built in your chapter would be destroyed. However, it’s still important to evoke the setting and put your scene in context. And that’s where showing action comes in handy.

Let’s say you start your scene with your character walking through St Mark’s Square in Venice. Instead of describing the pigeons, the tourists and the layout of the space, you can evoke it through action:

He was late. St Mark’s clocktower had struck one and Enzo found himself pushing against the tide of tourists milling towards the cafes lining the Piazza San Marco. A clump of pigeons scattered in front of him.

Through action, you’re able to describe the setting of the scene while also maintaining your story’s forward motion.

Tip #4. Use strong details, but don’t overdo it

Strong, vivid details are crucial to the process of showing. However, that doesn’t mean you should include too many details, especially those that are overly embellished. This kind of excessively ornate language can be just as bad as “telling” language that’s too basic, as it may cause the reader to lose interest in your super-dense prose.

Too much detail: The statue felt rough, its aged facade caked with dust and grime as I weighed it in my hand, observing its jagged curves and Fanta-colored hue.

Just right: It was heavier than it looked. Some of the orange facade crumbled in my hand as I picked it up.

Strike the right balance by alternating between simple and complex sentences and ideas, and different types of sensory detail, so the reader doesn’t get overloaded on one type.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Examples

To break down this technique even further, here are a few additional “show, don’t tell” examples of authors showing rather than telling in their writing. If you want to analyze even more examples of this tactic, just crack open the nearest novel! Pretty much every work of fiction involves showing, and observing the tactics of successful authors is one of the best ways to learn for yourself.

Example #1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.

This passage uses various senses (smell, touch, and sound) to recreate the atmosphere of Offred’s old garden, romanticizing the act of gardening to show that she misses those days. It also connects that peaceful past time to the present day, implying that many people no longer feel at peace, including the Commander’s Wife.

Example #2. It by Stephen King

In this early scene, young Georgie is running after his toy boat as he is unwittingly being lured by a malevolent force.

Now here he was, chasing his boat down the left of Witcham Street. He was running fast but the water was running faster and his boat was pulling ahead. He heard a deepening roar and saw that fifty yards farther down the hill the water in the gutter was cascading into a storm drain that was still open. It was a long dark semi-circle cut into the curbing, and as Georgie watched, a stripped branch, its bark as dark and glistening as sealskin, shot into the storm drain’s maw.

King renders the fast-running rivulets of a rainy day by having Georgie run alongside them, unable to keep up. Then he sees the storm drain, which King aptly calls a “maw” (a spot-on metaphor), and its threat is heightened by the sound of its “deepening roar” and the fact that it swallows an entire branch. Needless to say, poor Georgie’s boat doesn’t stand a chance.

Sadly, the SS Georgie was doomed from the start. (Image: Warner Bros.)

Example #3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

In this scene, a suburban husband awakens to the sound of his wife’s cooking.

My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward the finale.

This passage starts off fairly simple, building up to the grand metaphor of the kitchen noises as a “culinary orchestra.” It’s also noteworthy for its use of onomatopoeia, which is a great tactic for “showing” sound.

However, this passage isn’t just what Nick hears: it’s also what he feels (“my morning breath warmed the pillow”) and thinks (“I changed the subject in my mind”). The intimate description pulls the reader in, and the rhythm (quite literally!) of the passage keeps them engaged.

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Example #4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In this passage, Kristen contemplates her loneliness.

She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.

The theme of loneliness is evoked by with specific details: the character is shown desperately thinking about human connection. Her use of language — “reached far enough,” “cast their thoughts outward” — illustrates how extreme the character’s isolation is. This also ties into the post-apocalyptic novel’s theme of societal breakdown, which naturally results in isolation. Overall, this description gives us a much better idea of the character of Kirsten and the world of the Station Eleven than if Mandel wrote, “She wished that she weren’t so lonely.”

Example #5. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

In this early scene, Fern, the very young daughter of a farmer, learns of a new litter of piglets.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

From this brief conversation, E.B. White clearly characterizes Fern and sets the central plot in motion. After realizing that her father is about to kill a runt pig, Fern steps up to save Wilbur (as she’ll soon christen him), who will become the main character of the story. This passage also introduces the themes of empathy toward animals and the prospect of death, which pervade the rest of the book. White could have simply written “Fern cared a lot about animals,” but from the dialogue, we see it for ourselves — plus we get a sense of how the plot might unfold from here.

You gotta admit, that’s a pretty cute pig. (Image: Paramount)

Example #6. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

In this extract, Oliver has arrived in London for the very first time.

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses… Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill.

Oliver’s initial impression of London hits us like a train: you can almost taste the filthy air and hear the children screaming for yourself. And if London’s extreme depravity wasn’t already evident enough from the description, you can tell from Oliver’s reaction that it must be pretty bad — for context, he’s just walked 30+ miles to reach London, and this is the first thing that’s really fazed him.

Of course, Dickens might have just written, “Oliver reached London. It was dirty and crowded.” But while this more or less summarizes the above passage, it completely loses the visceral sense of setting and Oliver’s feelings toward that setting. Without these details, the description would be totally generic.

Example #7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In this scene, Montag, a “fireman” tasked with destroying books, hears his boss’s voice in his head, describing the burning of pages.

He could hear Beatty’s voice. “Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh? Light the third page from the second and so on, chainsmoking, chapter by chapter, all the silly things the words mean, all the false promises, all the second-hand notions and time-worn philosophies.”

This excellent use of metaphor (taken from our list of 97 metaphors in literature and pop culture) compares the pages of burnt books to “black butterflies”: an eerie image that, fittingly enough, burns itself into our brains. Though no book-burning actually occurs at this moment (Montag is merely imagining it), the reader can still vividly see what it would look like. We shudder at the contrast between the innocent, petal-like pages and the monstrous, destructive fire. Indeed, this is the pinnacle of showing — it really drives home how powerful figurative language can be.

Example #8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes that Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leaned against her front gate. What kind of a place was this? That was the thing, you see, you couldn’t be sure.

The stream-of-consciousness style here evokes the rushed chaos of moving house. Also, the juxtaposed descriptions of Archie and Clara (him “scrabbling, cursing, blinding, and wilting” while she calmly assesses the situation) show how different they are — a disparity which will only grow over the course of the book.

Is telling ever acceptable?

Of course, sometimes you have no other choice but to do a bit of “telling” in a story. Yes, it’s a narrative shortcut, but sometimes shortcuts are necessary — especially when you’re trying to explain something quickly, with no fanfare or immersive evocation for readers. Writers often “tell” at the beginning of a story to get the exposition across, or after a “big reveal” where certain details just need to be clearly stated. The important thing is balance; as long as you don’t have too much of either telling or showing, you should be fine.

Finally, remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules for writing. If you’re worried that you’re telling too much and not showing enough, but your writing still flows well and engages readers, don’t feel obligated to change it! And as Jim Thomas says in the video above: “In the arts, rules are more like friendly suggestions. This is especially useful to remember when you’re creating your first or second draft — you’re going to ‘tell’ and that’s okay. You’re still figuring out what your story is about.”

So whether you’re more inclined to show or to tell, just know that with practice, you’ll find the exact style that works for you. And when that happens, you’ll show everyone (sorry, we couldn’t resist!) what you’re made of as a writer.

Do you struggle to show, not tell? Leave any questions, concerns, or tips in the comments below!

9 responses

Diane Young says:

Jim’s talk was excellent. I tried to absorb every word he said, but in spots I had to back up the video to listen again for the concept of what he was putting across. The two takeaways that I really GOT were that you can “tell” in the early drafts, scribbled notes or an outline just to get it all down, but then come back later to rewrite and “show” what you told before. The second point that lit up for me is that the reader should start to have their own version of the story. It’s all getting clearer in my mind!

Serena Graham says:

How would you say this show not tell? The garden is beautiful. It was an exciting day. The cake was delicious.

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

The flowers were in full bloom, their blue and yellow petals bringing the garden to life. The boys could barely contain their excitement, clambering over each other for a peek out the window. Frosting dripped from Kate’s lips as each layer of chocolate sponege seemed to melt on her tongue.

↪️ Jasbina Sekhon-Misir replied:

what do you think makes a garden beautiful?If I asked you what about it was beautiful, what would you say?The peony’s blossoms greeted us as we walked towards the wooden garden gate. The herbaceous scent washed over me and the petals looked like painted raw silk. I ran my finger tips over the different shades of pink and white. I never thought cottage gardens could be so lush. Lilacs beaconed me deeper in and I saw an ancient rose bush against the grey stone wall. Carefully tended it was an explosion of roses. There was no escape. I am not the best, but just clearly describe what you are seeing that makes it beautiful as a sense experience.

Britney Whatt says:

I struggle to show a lot. For example, how could you show a enchanting castle that belongs to a Goddess? How do you also show that there’s been a shift in the aura of the place? A place where the air was warm and friendly suddenly changed to be sinister and chilling. I just need a few phrases to show an enchanting world

↪️ Jasbina Sekhon-Misir replied:

What do you think the castle is made of? The castle was an icicle of white marble, glass and clear quartz. Ghostly bleached wood veined its way through the architecture, pushing the slender building higher like finger pointing towards the heavens.I was scared by something so delicate being so large, so high. Everything about it seemed like an afront to what was natural. or even possible.

The place, which Johna could sense used to be glorious, was now dimmed, it seemed, casting an aura of forgottenness and something more sinister.

Modern writing tends to be so very bad that I simply can’t read it any more. It is all the same ubiquitous dull style, yet the authors have often studied ‘creative writing’. It’s a huge problem for me. The overly simplistic shorter sentences and the banal conversations have replaced the controlled impeccable sentences and well placed and relatively rare conversation. Even ten years ago the writing was so much better. Today’s themes are all the same as each other and books marketed on the basis that they resemble another author, with covers that make you think the same. Authors get published when they have nothing much to say and then do that very badly. It’s very tedious. I used to hear that the novel was dead when I was at university and I disagreed. Now I couldn’t agree more. Shut the lid on the coffin and bang in those nails some one. Save us from all those people who think they have a novel wanting to get out. Really? You probably don’t.I wish people would not stop others from writing in ways that that are more natural to them, it kills off creativity. Look at the other comments here – they all want to write in the ‘correct’ way. Please people if you must write, then be innovative and be free to express yourselves the way you want. With regard to show and tell, the oft trotted out phrase that limits people rather than helps them; sometimes show and sometimes tell. No one person gets to tell writers what they should do, not even Chekhov. You do you. It certainly doesn’t seem to have improved writing when everyone is obsessed with doing it.

↪️ Harrumphrey replied:

Agreed 100%. How many of these self-professed writing gurus who know all the “correct rules” have ever written a single piece of fiction worth reading? Very few, I’d guess. I can only imagine what most of great literature would look if these over-zealous editors got their hands on it. “Show, don’t tell” — really? So narrative paraphrase and summary aren’t viable techniques? Hmm, that red-inks just about everything written since the epic of Gilgamesh. Idiotic bad advice producing more bad writers who in turn produce more worthless books.