A piece of advice that many writers will hear in their careers is to show, don’t tell. But what does this so-called writing rule mean and how can we master it?
In this guide, we’re going to unpack showing instead of telling to help you elevate your writing so it’s appealing to readers, agents and publishers.
We’ll look at some ‘show, don’t tell’ examples and offer some crucial pieces of advice on fixing your writing so that there’s more compelling action.
You can jump through the guide by using the menu below. Let’s start with the debate between showing v. telling.
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- What’s The Difference Between Showing And Telling?
- Why Is It Bad To “Tell” A Story?
- The Best ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Tips
- Show, Don’t Tell Examples From Literature
- Use A Show, Don’t Tell Checklist
- Learn More About Creative Writing
Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and you’ll involve me.”
Sol Stein, On Writing
In his book, Stein On Writing, Sol Stein provides a very helpful guide on something writers so often hear about: show, don’t tell. The quote above neatly sums up the difference between the two approaches.
Do you remember asking someone, a family member perhaps, to tell you a story? It’s almost as if we’ve been conditioned to tell rather than show.
We’ve moved into a visual age with the likes of TV, film, and YouTube dominating our lives. People want to see a story, they want to experience it, to escape from their own world and go on adventures their own lives do not allow.
And this is why, as a writer in our contemporary age, showing a story instead of telling it is becoming more important than ever.
Stein, a master editor of some of the most widely-read books in the world, states that a failure to show the story is one of the chief reasons for rejecting manuscripts.
So, the difference between showing a story rather than telling it is that the former approach is more visually appealing, whereas the latter can be a little dull for the reader—they’re simply fed information.
Why is it regarded as bad writing to tell a story, then?
Well, as we’ve eluded to above, it can be dull for a reader.
When an author chooses to tell a story rather than show it through vivid sensory descriptions, actions, and dialogue, they inadvertently strip away the very essence of literary immersion. The reader, instead of being an active participant in the story, is relegated to a passive observer. The impact of this shift is threefold and significantly hampers the reading experience.
Firstly, the emotional connection between the reader and the characters is weakened. In the absence of dynamic scenes that allow readers to witness characters’ experiences firsthand, they are left bereft of the opportunity to empathize and form a genuine bond.
It is through showing that readers can witness the subtleties of facial expressions, body language, and the intricate interplay of emotions. Without these visual cues, the characters become distant and unrelatable, undermining the reader’s investment in their journey.
Secondly, the absence of a tangible setting diminishes the richness and authenticity of the story world. Descriptive passages not only transport readers to far-off lands and exotic locales but also provide a sensory experience that engages their imagination.
By merely telling, the author neglects to paint vivid pictures, and the reader is deprived of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that bring the narrative to life. The result is a flat, two-dimensional world that fails to ignite the reader’s senses or kindle their curiosity.
Lastly, telling a story often leads to a loss of narrative tension and suspense. Effective storytelling is an interplay of anticipation, revelation, and gradual unfolding. Through the artful depiction of events, conflicts, and their resolutions, the reader is held in a state of eager anticipation, yearning to discover what lies beyond the next page. However, when an author resorts to summarizing events or explaining them at a distance, the inherent drama and tension are sapped away. The reader is denied the thrill of being on the edge of their seat, turning pages with bated breath, as the story’s twists and turns unfold before their eyes.
Sol Stein highlights three main areas in which writers become ensnared by telling:
- Backstory – telling the reader what’s happened before the story begins. Stein is of the view that such information should be shown either in a narrative summary or in a rather controversial flashback.
- Telling what a character looks like. This is a tricky one. Instead of just saying, for example, a character is tall, look to show it. “He had to stoop under every doorway”, for instance.
- Telling what a character sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes, and feels on an emotional level. We’ll go into more detail with this below.
This sounds like I should never, ever tell …
Not true. Telling does have its place.
At times, shortcuts become necessary, particularly when you need to provide a quick and straightforward explanation without any elaborate descriptions or immersive experiences for your readers.
Authors often resort to “telling” at the outset of a story to convey the exposition or after a significant revelation where specific details require clear articulation. Maintaining a balance between showing and telling is crucial to ensure you do not have an excess of either in your writing.
Click Here To Learn More About Writing “Rules”
Let’s turn our attention to some practical show, don’t tell tips to help you master this tricky area of writing.
Let’s start with an easy pointer—dialogue. A character should avoid telling another character something they already know. It’s intrusive and lazy. Here’s one of Stein’s examples:
“Henry, your son the doctor is at the door.”
This sentence is just … urgh. Forced to hell. Conveys no imagery whatsoever. See what you think of this version:
“Do you think Herny would look more like a doctor if he grew a beard?”
Now, this is better. We have an image of a beardless man and the detail of him being a doctor has been shown to us rather than just told.
Characterizing Through Showing Action
Another thing to try so as to avoid telling in your writing is to look to include characterization. The best writers reveal what their characters are about without actually telling you anything about them. Let’s look at one of Stein’s examples of a woman who loves her children dearly:
“Helen was a wonderful woman, always concerned about her children.”
Very ‘tell-y’. It’s a bland description, devoid of imagery. See what you think of this version:
“When Helen drove her children to school she insisted on parking up and with one in each hand, accompanied them to the door.”
Here we’re shown a clear image of how much Helen loves her children. This one sentence reveals how much she cares without any mention of it. We can picture her walking them right up to the door, kissing them goodbye.
But it leaves the reader scope to ask questions which in turn draws them deeper into the tale. Is Helen too loving? Will she ever let her children grow up? We’ve been given the tools to ascertain, to judge, what she’s about. If you can work characterisation into your descriptions you’re doing it right!
Don’t Worry About Sentence Length
You’ll no doubt notice that when showing instead of telling sentences tend to be longer, and that’s fine! Let’s have a gander at this example:
“Neil felt anxious.”
Dull as anything. How about this?
“Every sound Neil heard, even the slightest scuff, caused him to spin round in the direction from which he thought it had come.”
Saying someone is anxious is easy. Showing it is a skill. And in showing actions we reveal how characters feel. This helps with characterisation too, because we get a sense of what this character does and how this character reacts when they experience such emotions.
Stein provides another excellent example, which he takes from Pulitzer prize-winner, John Updike. Instead of merely saying his character, Polly, loves swimming, Updike, with eloquence, says:
“With clumsy jubilance, Polly hurtled her body from the rattling board and surfaced grinning through the kelp of her own hair.”
Here we see that Polly is grinning as she surfaced, and coupled with the clumsy jubilance we get the impression that Polly is loving what she’s doing. I love that metaphor at the end: ‘the kelp of her own hair.’
One key ingredient to helping you show instead of telling is specificity. If you’re precise in your descriptions it gives you the power to show what you’re seeking to describe rather than merely telling the reader about it.
Looking at John Updike’s piece about Polly above, the reference to the ‘kelp of her own hair’ is one of the great examples of show not tell.
Think About Your Own Reactions
A good way to overcome telling is to highlight an emotion a character is feeling and then think of what you yourself do when you feel the same way. We often do things without thinking about them.
Nervousness is a good example of this. When I feel nervous I tend to bite my nails or fidget. My palms can become quite clammy too. Instead of just saying a character is nervous, show these physical reactions!
Don’t worry about not using the word ‘nervous’. You’ve shown that emotion. Trust your reader to draw their own conclusions.
Use Metaphors, Similes And The 5 Senses
Using metaphors and similes is a great way to aid your showing efforts. A good simile or metaphor can say a lot with very little.
Our sight is one of, if not the main way we learn. I find particularly with the fantasy genre if you’re trying to describe something original it helps to make references to relatable things, though this can be quite tricky when you’re making up a whole new fucking world!
George Orwell encouraged the use of metaphors and similes and provided some helpful and snappy advice when it comes to thinking of them:
“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
What Orwell is essentially saying is, don’t use clichés. Try to be original.
Click Here To Learn More About Prose Writing
Or Head Here To Learn About Using The 5 Senses In Writing
More Examples Of Show, Don’t Tell
You can never have enough show don’t tell examples. In this section, I wanted to give you even more, broken down in a neat, easy-to-understand way.
Telling – The open car door let in the cold air
Showing – Once the car door swung open, a cold wave of goosebump-inducing air washed over her.
Telling – The leaves of the plant were green
Showing – The leave of the plant were as green as the apples that used to grow in her grandmother’s backyard
Telling – The chocolate tasted nutty
Showing – The chocolate had a powerful taste of nuts, offending her tastebuds so much it was like she’d eaten nothing but for a week and a half
Telling – The brown leaves of the trees fell to the ground
Showing – The leaves, a rotten brown hue, fell from the trees to carpet the ground
These are just a handful of show, don’t tell writing examples. No doubt you can find more, or even come up with some yourself.
As a writing exercise, try to think of a dull sentence that evokes no imagery. Then study it and think of ways to conjure an image or feeling in the reader’s mind.
Just take the first example. Yes, we have an image of a car door being opened and cold air drifting in, but in the showing alternative, we get a sense of the extent of the cold and how it consumes our character’s body.
A Handy Infographic On When To Show And Not Tell
If you’d like more examples of show don’t tell, I thought you might find this infographic useful. Thanks to the folks at The Write Practice for developing this!
So you may want to learn how to tackle any instances of telling in your story. Let’s take a look at how some of the great writers of our time have achieved this:
Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger
Instead of telling the reader that the main character, Holden, is feeling depressed and lonely, the author shows us through his actions. For example, Holden spends a night wandering around New York City, trying to find someone to talk to and feeling increasingly disconnected from the people around him.
“I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’ I’ll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out. Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck.”
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
Instead of telling the reader that Harry is overwhelmed by the wizarding world, the author shows us through his reactions. For example, when Harry first enters Diagon Alley, he is awestruck by the sights and sounds around him, demonstrating his wonder and excitement. Here’s an extract:
“The shops became more cramped, the streets darker, and dirtier. The houses were leaning crookedly over the street, and at the tops of the windows, odd things were sticking out, as if the inhabitants had forgotten to take them indoors. And then, as they turned into a wide, cobbled street, full of shops with brightly colored fronts, Harry’s heart began to race.”
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Instead of telling the reader that Scout is curious and adventurous, the author shows us through her actions. For example, Scout and her brother, Jem, sneak into their neighbor’s yard to try and catch a glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley, demonstrating their curiosity and bravery. Here’s an excerpt:
“Jem threw open the gate and sped to the side of the house, slapped it with his palm and ran back past us, not waiting to see if his foray was successful. Dill and I followed on his heels. Safely on our porch, panting and out of breath, we looked back. Across the street, Miss Rachel was out on her front steps in the dewy coolness, waving genially at the world.”
Through this passage, we see Scout and Jem’s curiosity and bravery as they sneak around their neighborhood, trying to uncover the secrets of Boo Radley.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Instead of telling the reader that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, the author shows us through his actions. For example, Gatsby throws elaborate parties in the hope that Daisy will attend, demonstrating his desire to be close to her.
“Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.” (Chapter 3).
Through Gatsby’s actions of ordering crates of oranges and lemons for Daisy, the reader can see his desire to impress her and create the perfect atmosphere for their reunion.
The Hobbit By JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien was a master of showing action instead of telling, and he used this technique extensively in his works. Here are a few examples of showing action instead of telling from “The Hobbit”. Instead of telling us about Bilbo’s home, Tolkien shows us by describing its details:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Through the description of the hobbit-hole, the reader can visualize Bilbo’s home as a comfortable and cozy place.
Here’s another brilliant example. Instead of telling us about the Battle of the Five Armies, Tolkien shows us through the characters’ actions and dialogue:
“They hacked and hewed at the spiders’ webs, and in the end they all managed to creep out one by one into the daylight. … Swords flashed in the sunlight.”
Through the characters’ actions of fighting and the description of the sunlight flashing off their swords, the reader can feel the intensity of the battle and the triumph of the characters.
If you still need a hand mastering your showing instead of telling, Stein provides a helpful little checklist of questions you can ask yourself:
- Are you allowing the reader to see what’s going on?
- Does your author’s voice stray into the narrative at any point? If so, can you silence that voice with action? It’s through telling that the author’s voice intrudes.
- Are you naming emotions instead of conveying them by actions?
- Is any character telling another what they already know?
Always check to see if your descriptions are visual. Does your prose evoke imagery?
Below, you can find some other guides on creative writing that you may find useful, as well as tips on finding more showing not telling examples:
- What is passive voice? – this guide provides useful insights on how to avoid passive voice misuse
- Dialogue writing examples – dialogue is a powerful tool as we’ve soon above. Learn how to master it in this guide
- A guide with lots of show don’t tell examples by the Loyola Maymont University
- Turn to essay writing service CustomWritings if you need professional help with creative writing papers
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