Show, don't tell

Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know

21 Mar 2017 The Writing Craft

You’ve heard this writing advice a thousand times, and you’ll hear it a thousand times more:

Show, don’t tell.

But what does it mean?

If you struggle with the difference between showing and telling, you’re not alone. Once you’ve got it, it seems simple. But until you do, learning this technique can be as frustrating as anything in the writing world.

Is it really that important? You bet it is. If you want your writing noticed by an agent or a publisher, it’s vital you master the art of showing.

So let’s see if I can solidify the concept in your mind right here, right now.

I want to supercharge your showing vs. telling radar—and make it simple.

Need help fine-tuning your writing? Click here to download my FREE self-editing checklist.

The Difference Between Showing and Telling

When you tell rather than show, you inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.

You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”

That’s telling.

Showing paints a picture the reader can see in her mind’s eye.

Here’s how to show and not tell:

If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him.

Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity with others.

Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell.

Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind.

Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.”

When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want.

What could be better than engaging your reader—giving him an active role in the story experience?

Examples:

Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.

Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he shivered.

Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.

Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.

Telling: Suzie was blind.

Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.

Telling: It was late fall.

Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.

Telling: She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.

Showing: She wore coveralls, carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt. “Point me to the head,” she said.

Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.

Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.

Tips to Help You Avoid Telling

Show Don't Tell

Use Dialogue

Riveting dialogue breaks up narrative summary, differentiates characters (through dialect and word choice), and allows a story to emerge naturally, rather than your spelling out every detail.

Instead of telling, with clunky dialogue like this:

“Just because you’re in this hospital because you were nearly killed in that wreck when Bill was driving, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive him.”

Try this:

“What are you going to do about Bill? He feels terrible.”

“He ought to.”

“Well, has he visited?”

“He wouldn’t dare.”

What actually happened can emerge in realistic dialogue as the story progresses.

Participating in the experience is part of the fun of being a reader.

Appeal to Readers’ Senses

There’s nothing quite like the human imagination.

Used wisely, suggestive imagery can help you grab your readers’ attention, transport them to a different world, as long as you don’t draw attention to the writing itself and remind them they’re reading.

Examples:

1. Sight
  • Starlings soared in dark flocks.
  • Covered in soot, he carried his son from the blaze.
2. Sound
  • Thunder rattled the windows.
  • Laughter broke the silence.
3. Smell
  • Pumpkin and cinnamon wafted from the kitchen.
  • She awoke to the aroma of percolating coffee.
4. Taste
  • Her lips puckered as the lemon touched her tongue.
  • He savored the fluid yolk of the Eggs Benedict.
5. Touch
  • The smooth stone felt cool in her palm.
  • Smooth silk swallowed Rita in the bed.

Use Powerful Verbs

Show Don't Tell

Action verbs, as opposed to state-of-being verbs, trigger the theaters of your readers’ minds, allowing them an important role in experiencing your story.

A woman once told me she was thrilled to discover a book she’d cherished as a child. She eagerly thumbed through it, looking for the beautiful paintings she remembered so well, only to discover the book had no illustrations.

The author had so engaged the theater of her young mind that she had imagined those very real impressions.

Here’s a list of 294 powerful verbs with examples you can use as you learn how to show, not tell.

Active Voice Adds Power

To eliminate passive voice, eliminate as many of your state-of-being verbs as possible (is, am, are, was, were, etc.—Google a list and print it).

Examples

Passive: The party was planned by Jill.

Active: Jill planned the party.

Passive: The wedding cake was made by Ben.

Active: Ben made the wedding cake.

Passive: The Little League team was given trophies by the coaches.

Active: The coaches gave trophies to the Little League team.

Click here for my detailed guide on fixing passive voice.

Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)

Example

She glanced up at the clouds in the sky.

He walked through the open door.

Readers are intelligent. They want to be able to deduce things, not to be led by the nose.

When Telling is Acceptable

Narrative summary is sometimes prudent.

Say you have to get your character to a location where the real action happens.

There’s no need to invest several pages showing every aspect of the trip from packing, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving, etc. Rather, it’s okay to you quickly tell it this way:

He flew to Washington, where he…

Then return to showing mode, concentrating on the heart of what happened there.

Show, Don’t Tell Examples

Learn the art of showing (and occasionally telling) from those who’ve done it successfully.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Some writers make you want to emulate them. Frazier makes me want to surrender and simply read.

“The hay field beyond the beaten dirt of the school playground stood pant-waist high and the heads of grass were turning yellow from need of cutting. The teacher was a round little old man, hairless and pink of face. He owned but one rusty, black suit of clothes and a pair of old overlarge dress boots that curled up at the toes and were so worn down that the heels were wedge-like. He stood at the front of the room rocking on the points.”

The reason it works? Besides the fact that he works the description into the action, he makes you forget you’re reading. That’s the goal.

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

In this novel, Dr. John Watson’s observation of Sherlock Holmes could’ve been boring, but notice how Doyle handles it:

“So swift, silent and furtive were his movements like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defense.”

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Describing Mordor, Tolkien leaves no question about its dangers.

“The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Morrison brilliantly condenses years into one paragraph of narrative summary:

“Men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the stock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.”

Why the Book Is Usually Better Than the Movie

The reader’s mind is more imaginative than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books trigger readers to create their own visuals.

That’s why it’s worth your time to master the art of showing.

Need help fine-tuning your writing? Click here to download my FREE self-editing checklist.

75 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know

  1. Great post, Jerry!
    Good to be reminded of these techniques that make such a difference to your writing.

  2. great post. can you please share all books you know of on this topic? interested in learning more.

  3. @Karsten – Show Don’t Tell Books

    Showing and Telling in Fiction
    —Marcy Kennedy

    Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting It)
    —Janice Hardy

    Show & Tell in a Nutshell
    —Jessica Bell

    Showing & Telling: Learn to Show & When to Tell
    —Laurie Alberts

  4. A prime number multiplied to subtract differences and add reconciliation. Can you show me? Grasping the concept but need to grip it.

  5. I have long struggled with character reactions, such as laughter, and screaming. How does one show this in dialogue? My thanks.

  6. Good post! I’m glad you don’t go overboard with “showing.” There should be a balance between showing and telling. Books are after all not movies. Too much, or rather, the wrong kind of showing can be equally bad. Francine Prose in her excellent book “Reading like a Writer” puts it very well: “And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out–don’t tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams ‘yay’ and jumps up and down for joy–when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.” I think “energetic and specific use of language” is the key point!

  7. Is the point the same for children’s books? Do you just keep the descriptions very short so their attention is not lost? Old cartoons do a lot of showing and not a lot of talking. I think it is a similar point, because the viewer sees and then has to establish thoughts, feelings, or even dialect for the character. I enjoyed your article. Thank you!

  8. Jim threw his head back and howled. “Hilarious.”

    …Mary doubled over in laughter. “Spare me,” she said, gasping.

    Characters can scream dialogue, but they can’t laugh dialogue. So:
    …, she screamed.
    …, he said, laughing.

  9. It’s actually easier in picture books, Susie, because the illustrations can save so much description. For several years I wrote the syndicated sports story comic strip, Gil Thorp, and I used a lot more words telling the artist what to draw than I did in the conversation bubbles. If we showed a little girl cowering behind her mother at the presence of a big dog, I didn’t need to have her say she was scared or didn’t like dogs or anything that was obvious in the drawing. I could have her say, “I want to go home!” Or “I can see him from here!”

  10. Exactly, Christa. And besides having the perfect name for a writer, Francine is always spot on. I always learn a ton from her, and her thoughts on this subject are gold.

  11. That’s what makes us writers, Glenda–getting a feel for that as we write and as we read our stuff back. If you’re over-showing–describing stuff we would know from a choice word or two–you’re slipping into on-the-nose writing. If you’re heavy on narrative summary, that can be all telling. So pick an important piece of it that can be shown. For instance, in this example, the early stuff can be summarized (as I do) and then we get to the good stuff:

    It took Bill a half hour longer to get to work due to slowdowns on the subway line, but when he tried to explain that to his supervisor, she said, “Have a seat.”

    Uh-oh.

    “Even if I assume your excuse is legit and we forget about today,” she said, “what about the half dozen previous tardies on your record?”

    “A half dozen? Are you sure?”

    “You think I don’t keep track, Bill?”

    “Well, sure, yeah, but six? I had no idea.”

    The beginner might be tempted to play out (or show) all the subway stuff and how Bill fretted and ran, etc., on the elevator, off, rushing to his boss’s office, etc., then simply tell that he was late and got in trouble with his boss. So, tell the mundane stuff we can all imagine, and show the encounter with the boss–because he’s being warned about his future. We want that on stage with the reader in the front row.

  12. There are dozens, Karsten. Wendy Pearson lists a few in her post above. Google “showing vs. telling” and you’ll find more than you could ever need. :)

  13. Oh, sure. The main spot beginners get this wrong by taking it as an all or nothing rule is in getting characters from one place to another. If you move your character from home to, say, her mother’s house, the only reason to show the trip by fully playing out every aspect of it would be if something significant happens on the way. Emergency? Danger? Attack? Running into someone important to the plot? But even then, show ONLY that, not–as, believe it or not, I have seen–a recitation of the character dressing, opening and closing the door of the house, entering the garage, slipping behind the wheel of the car, starting it, backing out, hitting the remote to shut the door, pulling into the street–and then ad nauseum about the route.

    THAT is too much showing, besides being on-the-nose [http://bit.ly/1boPgVI] . Here’s how that should be rendered:

    Later that morning, at her mother’s house…

    Not one reader is going to say, Hey, wait a minute! How did she get there?

  14. Thanks Jerry. Great, and much needed posts. I struggle in that area. I am like a car that heads for the usual route, when the driver intends to go somewhere else. I have been practicing, anyway, and hope to
    discipline myself in doing it.

  15. This was fantastic. I’ve read a lot about showing/telling, but this article really showed me what I needed to be reminded of and the books vs. movies thing is a good and easy way to remember the information. Thanks.

  16. Jerry, thank you for a great post. In the airport scenario, I like the way you rolled it all into one sentence. In addition to telling instead of showing, I struggle with compacting the facts such as, “He packed his weapons, making sure he included the Glock. Airport security proved to move faster than usual, and he was glad he had arrived earlier than specified. Etc., etc., etc.” I appreciate your encouragement that “once you’ve got it, it seems simple.” What I have read and heard about “show, don’t tell” makes sense to me, but in practice, it evades me. I am saving your post.

  17. When writing in first-person POV, can the main character tell some of their background without showing everything? The main character’s background in one of my stories is key info to know very early on in the story, but I don’t know how to include it without just stating it.

  18. Jerry
    Great post, and great reminder about ‘painting pictures with words’. I like the concept.
    Lawrence

  19. O.K. I Have a question. You gave the example of Telling- IT WAS LATE FALL and Showing-THE LEAVES CRUNCHED BENETH HIS FEET. My question is why can’t the two examples be put together like this? IT WAS LATE FALL THE LEAVES CRUNCHE BENETH HIS FEET would that still be showing?

  20. First, it would need punctuation between the clauses. More importantly, saying it was late fall is merely telling; showing leaves crunching beneath one’s feet shows it and allows the reader to deduce it–which makes saying both redundant.

  21. Some things need to be mentioned, but you want to avoid the assumed and expected. “Despite a brief detour to a special area to check his weapons, he moved quickly through Security, relieved he would have access to the Glock as soon as he arrived.

    “Landing ahead of schedule…”

  22. Ahhh, thank you. I am nodding vigorously. Like Maurice, I want you to keep instructing me. Practice, practice, practice. I WILL get it.

  23. Thank you, Jerry, for clarifying for me that there are times telling is appropriate. I too like the theater in my mind better than the Hollywood efforts. After struggling for a while with passive and active voice I think I have it. Would you discuss this, again, sometime?

  24. O.K. Now I think I understand. In order to combine both examples it would have to go more in depth, about it being late fall. With the leaves changing colors and they themselves beginning to fall from the trees creating a thick carpet to crunch under his feet.
    And I would have to also mention the chill in the air and the dimming of the afternoon daylight. And I would also have to describe weather it is a forest setting or a city sidewalk. Is that Close?

  25. Because you don’t think people know what happens when leaves are crunchy underfoot? :) I would not need to be told about shortening days or a chill in the air. I don’t need anything about the weather unless it’s significant to the plot. A storm? Maybe. Otherwise, I’ll assume it’s fall weather. Just give the reader enough to trigger the theater of his mind. He doesn’t need to be spoon fed. Don’t do all his work for him.

    And no, I don’t think a man walking on a city sidewalk will have leaves underfoot. :)

  26. I have been to a writer’s conference at the University of North Dakota. It was a hoot! I looked over some of yesterday’s books that I bought there, and this subject was addressed. When I see how they define it, I think of my mom. She seldom told me to do housework a certain way. I simply did what she did, and I learned what I needed to know. This is a type of show don’t tell, and the same rule can be applied loosely to writing. I can see her actions in my head. So showing lends to imagery, and telling is just telling. I would rather have the pictures.

  27. Dear Mr. Jenkins,
    I just have a couple of questions.
    I am really looking forward to reading The Paper Boat. Do you know when it will be available for purchase?
    Do you think you will write a fourth book in the series?
    Thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Mia Pagliuca

  28. Thank’s for the post. This is very helpful and now I can do some editing of my work for show and not tell.

  29. Sorry for the delay in replying. Here’s a paragraph-in-question from one of my stories.

    Twenty years ago, you could find me in the wilderness of this vast place I live. I was well-known among my tribe as an avid hunter, skilled in very form of marksmanship. I could just as easily kill a buck for our food as I could take out our mortal enemies with one shot. It was unheard of for a ten-year-old.

  30. Sure, that can work, but I’d tighten it:

    Twenty years ago, I was known among my tribe as an avid hunter, skilled in very [assume you mean ‘every’] form of marksmanship. [I would change that last clause above to …hunter, a skilled marksman.] I could kill a buck or take out a
    mortal enemy with one shot–unheard of for a ten-year-old.

  31. You make it so easy and it’s the hardest thing to do! So many books are mostly tell books. I, in a hurry to tell all that’s spilling out of my mind and where my book is going that I don’t show enough. Thank you.

  32. “Just give the reader enough to trigger the theater of his mind”

    I think I shall carry that image in my writer’s pocket to draw upon as inspiration

  33. All super helpful, especially briefly telling about an event that moves the story forward but it’s too mundane to show. One way I instinctively solved this issue was by avoiding anything mundane but I realized sometimes it provides a helpful contrast, a tool to highlight tension, conflict, drama. It’s all the relativity that gives meaning. What’s exciting about writing is I get to choose how to show these relationships.

    Thank you!

  34. It looks like it’s easy but it’s not! Oh god, I feel so bad about my writing right now. Anyway, thank you so much! Your tips have been really helpful :)

  35. I wonder if I got it right

    Fia walked to the lake

    Fia had the pleasure of stamping high to get past mile tall
    grass, all in the name of seeing the silver edge of the lake

  36. Thank u for the sound advice Jerry. I’m at the very start of myself becoming this “writer” you speak of, rather than just writing a book. I liked that advice very much as well as learning how to show, not tell.
    I’m a 32 year old “retired criminal” now trying to find myself. Anytime I’ve been asked “what I would like to do/be in life”, I’ve never been able to respond with anything other than simply “I dont know”.
    Is there any advice you can give me as a seasoned writer on where to gain direction and knowledge in this craft? Anything is appreciated.

    Sincerely,
    Matthew

  37. Your articles always make me feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to write. I’ve always told my heroes’ stories, rather than show them to my readers. I will like to become better at writing, Jerry. Please, is it possible that we connect?

  38. I have a query: In the beginning part of my chapter, my purpose of this first chapter is to convey a mystery – so that the readers would question certain things – the important things. Like the main question: who is this man? and four others I shan’t get into detail here. Now, I had posted the original excerpt in a facebook group i’m involved with and then an edited one, I thought I corrected it well enough but apparently not so much. I was told all that I’ve written was more tell rather than show. Now, not because of that particularly, I’ve become frustrated – I’m trying to really understand the whole concept.

    When is it really necessary to make it showing rather than telling?
    I think I need a more thorough guide to this.
    And how much is it ok to tell?
    I’ve written 127,244 words – most of which I worry that I either “told” too much or repeated expressions…I just worry about spending another two years writing this all over again instead of just editing it and moving along with the hopeful series. It’s supposed to be a mythical science fiction fantasy, some of which, i feel can’t be all showed unless it becomes far too wordy. I wouldn’t want to exhaust my future and possible readers, that is if I can get any.
    I was even told my drafted paragraph was “conceptually interesting”, sort of liked the possible compliment but if its all tell…(some) readers won’t like it.

  39. The discussions have made things much easier for me ,as i’m conducting creative writing workshops for the kids. Thanks Wendy for the list of books.

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