Show, Don’t Tell

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Anyone who’s ever written a short story or taken a freshman composition course has heard the words “show, don’t tell.”

I know those words can be frustrating. You might not know exactly what “show, don’t tell” means. Or you might believe that you are showing when you’re really telling.

While “telling” can be useful, even necessary, most people don’t realize how vital “showing” is to an effective story, essay, or even a blog post. Showing allows the reader to follow the author into the moment, to see and feel and experience what the author has experienced. Using the proper balance of showing and telling will make your writing more interesting and effective.

“Okay, I get it,” you’re thinking. “But how do I do it? How do I bring more ‘showing’ into my writing?”

I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips that will help make your writing more vivid and alive for your reader.

1. Use dialogue

This is probably one of the first things I talk to my students about when I have them write personal essays. Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader your mom was angry, they can hear it for themselves:

“Justin Michael,” mom bellowed, “Get in here this instant!”

Dialogue can give your reader a great deal about character, emotion and mood.

2. Use sensory language

In order for readers to fully experience what you’re writing about, they need to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around them. Try to use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

3. Be descriptive

I’m sure everyone remembers learning to use adjectives and adverbs in elementary school. When we’re told to be more descriptive, it’s easy to go back to those things that we were taught. But being descriptive is more than just inserting a string of descriptive words. It’s carefully choosing the right words and using them sparingly to convey your meaning.

The following example is from a short story I wrote.

Telling: He sits on the couch holding his guitar.

There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. It gives the reader some basic information, but it doesn’t create an image. Compare that sentence with this:

Showing: His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants to let go.

The second example takes that basic information and paints a picture with it. It also uses figurative language—in this case, the simile “cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover”—to help create an image.

When using description, it’s important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you can end up with what I call “police blotter” description. For example:

He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.

4. Be specific, not vague

This is another one I’m constantly reminding my college students about. Frequently, they will turn in essays with vague, fuzzy language. I’m not sure if they think this type of writing sounds more academic, but all it really does is frustrate the reader.

Instead of writing, “I had never felt anything like it before in my entire life,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader. Your readers will thank you for it.

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32 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Thanks for a good post. I appreciate the examples you give to back up what you are saying. Too many blogs simply say “Do this and this…” but never give any concrete examples of how “this” is done.

  2. This is a basic yet extremely important writing rule that many writers seem to forget.

    Just to note, though: some novels (The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters comes to mind) can get exhausting because almost everything is shown – there are no breaks in between to let you “catch your breath,” if that make sense.

    And then there are books (like Shaman’s Crossing) that use a LOT of narrative summary (which is a form of telling, isn’t it?) and yet they’re still entertaining and popular.

    I’m currently reading a book called “Self-editing for fiction writers” that explains these things in detail – anyone who’s interested in this may want to get it from the library.

  3. That’s true, Thorn. That’s why I say finding a balance is important.

    That book sounds great–I’ll have to check it out!

  4. thanks alot for such a perfect post
    I’m tring to take all ur tips and use them in my writing class

  5. wow.. i’ve never thought about that before.
    thanks for the great tips.
    i’ll definitely subscribe to your feed now.
    thanks Miss Erin.

    ps: why is it under finction writing? 🙂

  6. 5th paragraph down, either my web browser is screwed or there is a typo: “vividand” as compared to “vivid and”.

    Excuse the me·tic’u·los’i·ty 🙂 Your articles have made me more aware and informed.

    Fantastic tips!

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    thank oyu

  8. I need help writing a 1 page essay about a messy kitchen without using the words kitchen, mess or any of their synonyms basid on the show don’t tell method. Please someone help me!!!!!!!

  9. I just came across this site today while looking for writing tips online. I’m a teenage amateur novelist and find your tips extremely helpful. I was puzzled for years about the “show, don’t tell” phrase used copiously by teachers. Only recently have I begun to understand what it really means and how to use it. Here’s a sample of the products of my efforts:

    A fluorescent light bulb in a frosted cover hung from the ceiling, illuminating a tiny lobby lined with dusty chairs. A few out-of-date magazines resided on a knee-high table in the corner. Despite the way everything was covered in dust and looked several years old, there was an interesting smell in the room, not the normal musty aroma I would have associated with it. Sort of like bay leaves and cinnamon.

    I really tried to use more senses than just sight. Again, your tips are awesome. Keep it up!


  10. I pulled this up out of SHEER FRUSTRATION!!!!! I am currently teaching Freshman English 1301 and if I have written “Show! Don’t tell”! once, I’ve written it 1000 times! ARGH!!! They are trying to tie back vague thesis statements in their concluding paragraphs but GGGGAAAAA!!!!! Their thesis statements SAY NOTHING!!!!! Consequently, their conclusions SAY NOTHING!!!!!!!!! So…..I will continue my search for more examples of Show! Don’t Tell! (the college version of Show and Tell (heh-heh!) There! I have vented. Thank you very much! 🙂

  11. hmmm, that won’t do. If I speak my mind the Grammar police and Vice Squad would arrest me for indelicate indecency. Good thing I wore my disquise, eh?
    This is an interesting post, fascinating really however I really must something about my procrastination… possibly increase it.

    Have a glorious day and I shall think hard and long regarding the advice herin.

  12. A very informative blog indeed. I myself am starting to write my own fictitious stories for my friends and family to read, and I am trying to avoid poor writing habits as best as I can. I had always heard the term “show, don’t tell” be used a lot, but I never really understood what that meant. I’m glad that this explained it to me. This is a perfect starting point for anyone who is thinking of becoming an author in the future, because, in my opinion, it’s one of the most important rules to follow in order to keep your readers interested. Thanks again.

  13. wow, this is great! This kind of post are the one ppl should do all the time. 3yrs after you posted is still helping other. I have to write an essay and cuz I’d missed class I did not have a clue what a “show dont tell means” TY very much for posting this.

  14. Linda, if you’ve written ‘Show, don’t tell’ a thousand times on students work and there is still no improvement then clearly they don’t know HOW to use it.
    Examples are good to use to show what show don’t tell looks like, but they don’t show writers HOW to achieve the aim. It’s a gulf they aren’t able to cross.
    Try scaffoldling. Bridge the gap. Break how to ‘show’ down into small steps for them – YOU model it. “Ok students, when I want to change my telling into showing, this is how I start…” Then get them to look back at their own piece of writing and find one thing that is ‘telling’ (you may need to help them find one). Select one and model to the class HOW you would improve it, asking them for suggestions along the way. Show them there are multiple ways of showing the same thing too – let them play with the sentence a few times and see what they get.

  15. First of all, whoever decided “Show don’t tell” was the chiseled in stone, do-all/be-all/end-all of writing needs to be hunted down and strung up by his thumbs (or some other, less visible though far more painful portion of anatomy)!

    The admonition to “Show don’t tell” is a guideline. It is not a law and it is not to be taken as one hundred percent absolute. Good writing needs some telling as well as showing. The narrative as well as the imagery are vital to crafting a well-rounded story. The key is in balance.

  16. So I find this difficult to do! But this is also my first draft of my story what should I do? Is there a book where it teaches you this better?

    But I do find this article extremely helpful!

  17. This is why I believe all writers should be involved in community theatre and acting classes. Show, don’t tell is easy to understand if you’ve ever been on a stage with an audience watching your every move. You can’t stop in the middle of q scene, turn to the audience, and say, “I am heart-broken.”

    Not unless you want to be booed off the stage or in a satirical comedy.

    No, if you are playing the part of your character, you SHOW you are heart-broken by falling to your knees, and allowing a single tear to drop. Then, as though that single tear broke a dam in your soul, you collapse forward and bury your face in your hands, and cry your heart out.

    Thus, that should be what you write. Don’t stop the scene and talk at your audience! Share emotion with them through action, tone, and word choice (a benefit a writer gets that an actor does not as they have previously written lines to read).

    That is why I believe all writers should try acting and all actors should try writing. The two careers feed off each other so crucially. All books have actors (also known as characters), and all actors have a story to tell (also known as a script). This isn’t the only benefit to be had from acting, but it is a highly useful one.

    Anyway, hope somebody finds that useful. Just thought I’d share my opinion on the way show, don’t tell should be taught. Have a wonderful day everyone!

  18. Sorry, have a little (I hope) something to add.

    If you cannot take an acting class or get into a community theatre project, then do the next best thing: imagine it.

    Imagine yourself as the character you are writing and pretend you are on stage. You feel grief, because your husband has just died. Do you tell the audience of your grief, describing the pain you feel? You can’t, because you’re acting and that isn’t in your lines. So, how do you communicate what you’re feeling to the audience? Through action, of course. But what kind? An expression, a sound, the way you stand, the way you walk, in body language? Describe those actions in written words.

    And voilà! You have just shown your reader, instead of telling them.

    This also applies to character personality. On stage, you don’t get to describe a person’s personality to the audience. But you can show it in your action, your tone, and your body language. For instance, say your character is a snob. You throw your nose in the air and behave as though everyone on stage is beneath you. You never once tell the audience that you are a snob (the word isn’t even mentioned), but the audience understands it anyway.

    Again, sorry, but I wanted to add those two points. I simply couldn’t resist. Hope everybody is having fun and happy writing!

  19. Kayla, THANK YOU!

    That is absolutely brilliant – you’re very first point of saying “You can’t turn to an audience in the middle of a scene and say ‘I am heart-broken’.” has just helped me realize where I’m going wrong!

    You have really cleared it up, I struggle between the fabrics of visualization and documentation but envisioning the gap between audience and stage is the PERFECT way to for me to get around that. That bit of advice is absolutely golden. SO MUCH LOVE! Thank you!

  20. Great post! I agree with the other posters, it is so great to see you giving examples to back up things your telling us rather than just saying “Don’t do this”.

  21. The problem with show-don’t-tell is that it arises from film and not literature. This is incredibly limiting to writing literature. Another way of saying “show-don’t-tell” is asking “can the camera see it.” Why does it matter if the camera can see it or not? Why does it matter if you show, instead of telling? Does it make the story better? Not necessarily.

    Writing literature is an art, not an algebraic formula. Individuals who highly insist on showing (as opposed to telling), attempt to conform writing literature to a standard. Consequently, that is restricting the imagination and creativity of the writer under the pretense that by following various publishing industry standards, their writing will be regarded as “good” and can be solicited for publication.

    That is the essence of the real problem: show-don’t-tell is not a merely a concept to improve writing, but rather an employ of industry.

    While that may sound like a conspiracy theory, consider what Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the Earthsea Cycle, has to say about the matter, “So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry… What commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life — of a sort, for a while,” (Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, Foreward, xii-xiii).

    Is she wrong? By no means. As Ms. Le Guin pointed out, publishers and, to that extent, literary agents, expect to turn a profit, and as the Sterling Lord literistic coined it on their submissions page, “can seriously consider only those [stories] with merit.” In other words, they only want manuscripts that they know they can sell for the industry.

    Writing has ceased to become an art, and unfortunately, has turned into an industry. There is no more writing for the sake of writing and telling a good story. The purpose and art of the Humanities has been chained down by capitalism. Stories used to have meaning and depth, but that depth has been lost.

    So, if the writer wants to turn a profit, then by all means, show and don’t tell, but if the writer is as much a story-teller as they are an artist, then they will show, or tell, as they deem necessary of their expression.

  22. Hello Erin! Thank you so much for this article. Now I know that I actually HAVE been showing instead of telling this entire time. Most of my author friends who acted as temporary betas kept saying I was telling too much. Really, it was just too much description.
    None of them had explained to me what this meant. I don’t write for other people, and so I don’t write as they WANT me to. I write as myself, but then they tell me my writing style is wrong. SO, again, Thank you. I now have confidence again. 🙂

  23. Thank you for these examples. It is not often that people who are telling a person to do something, the “how”, if you will, actually understand that those studying need to get to grips with the actual “yes, but HOW??!” of the topic.

    Using examples, as you have done, clears it all up. Yes, we still need practice, but now at least we know WHAT to practice and HOW to practice! Because now, it makes sense.

    The other comments on here are great too. Some fab contributions to helping comprehend the topic.

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