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Show Don't Tell: How to Show Not Tell in Writing

Novel Treasure is a do-it-yourselfer and prides herself on being able to make basic home repairs on her own.

Keys to great novel writing


Show don't tell

It’s a classic lesson, right? Every writer from beginner to veteran published author has heard the words, "Show Don't Tell" at some point in their career. But how does the "Show Don't Tell" principle apply to your writing?

If you simply tell your readers what is going on rather than showing them, you are limiting their ability to be involved in the story. They will get bored quickly and they may leave a bad review, or worse DNF (Did Not Finish) it. Too much telling can sink your book before it even gets started.

It takes a special voice to reveal a story in a compelling way. It takes a voice in tune with the art of showing. Some of the authors who have mastered the art of showing are Stephen King, J.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling to name a few.

These individuals capture you with memorable characters and fascinating sensory details. They construct worlds beyond you. And as a reader, you find yourself immersed in those worlds somehow. They tap into the emotional and sensory side of writing.

If you can train your brain to operate in imagery and sensory modes, then your fantasy, romance, or thriller will lift right off the page.

But what exactly does "Show Don't Tell" really mean and why is it important? And how can you avoid that pitfall?

Sensory Immersion


What is Show Don't Tell?

Before we can understand the importance of showing vs telling or learn how to do it properly, we must first understand what it is.

"Show Don't Tell" is the style of writing that allows readers to experience stories through actions and sensory details such as thoughts and feelings rather than traditional narrative form.

Showing is all about involving the reader and immersing them in the world and mind's of the characters rather than simply telling them.

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing."

— Ernest Hemingway

Why show don't tell is important and always will be

So, now we know the difference between showing and telling. But why does it matter?

Well do you want to be a writer or do you want to be a great writer?

Showing is a foundational element of quality work. It provides character depth, world-building, and story development without giving everything away. Showing leaves just enough detail out to allow your readers to develop their own interpretation, which is far more interesting than telling. It also keeps them hooked, while moving them along in the direction you want them to go.

It can make or break your novel. And no matter where your writing journey has taken you, it’s still relevant and always will be.

Famous example of showing

Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

— Anton Chekhov

How to identify showing vs telling

Think about it this way: when you invite people over, especially for the first time, it's common to show them around your house. You take them on a tour. You let them into your space, you grant access to your world. They see with their own eyes, and drw their own conclusions from what they experience. Why? Because they've been shown.

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What if, instead of taking them on a tour, and allowing them to experience your space for themselves, you sat them in the living room and proceeded to tell them every single detail about your house? They don't get to see it for themselves or decide what it looks and feels like to them. They are told every last detail.

There's no experience. And that's the key. Telling has become the pattern, whether to meet a word count or because a writer simply doesn't know better. But, it's boring. Fact after fact, list after list, description of clothing, hair color etc..., telling on top of more telling-readers lose interest. Fast!

Showing vs Telling Examples


He was nervous.

Beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

She was afraid of the dark.

Huddled under the covers, she clenched her fists in her sheets, as her heartbeat thundered in her ears.

She held the baby lovingly.

She cradled the baby against her breast, stroking the soft curls, as she softly hummed a lullaby to soothe her.

The professor provided feedback on my paper. It wasn't good.

He lectured me with a smug voice on the importance of imagery all the while scribbling furious notes in the margin of my paper. There wasn't a paragraph that wasn't slashed with red ink.Not one paragraph escaped the slash of his red ink.

5 Show Don’t Tell Tips

So, where do you begin? How do you keep yourself in check? What are some practical ways to put this showing strategy into action? Here are five tips that will make you a stronger storyteller, counselor, motivator, etc.

Although these tips center on the fictional narrative form, there are plenty of takeaways for those writing in nonfiction as well. You should work to make your prose lively and memorable, too. Showing can help you do exactly that.

Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book."

— Pawan Mishra

1. Sensory Language

Whether you’re setting the stage for a gardening book or writing a sci-fi novel, incorporating the senses will make your writing soar. It’s the only way to allow your readers to feel connected on every level. And remember that it’s tempting to lean on the sense of sight when you’re showing, only describing what may be witnessed. But feeling, tasting, hearing, and smelling are valid senses. And oddly enough, they show. Check yourself. Are you tackling all the senses as you communicate character, setting, dialogue, and step-by-step directions?

“A tinkling bell rang somewhere in the depths of the shop as they stepped inside. It was a tiny place, empty except for a single, spindly chair that Hagrid sat on to wait. Harry felt strangely, as though he had entered a very strict library; he swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the thousands of narrow boxes piled neatly right up to the ceiling. For some reason, the back of his neck prickled. They very dust and silence in here seemed to tingle with some secret magic. ‘Good afternoon,’ said a soft voice. Harry jumped.”

J.K. Rowling has just swept us up in a momentous meeting. Harry’s wand is about to find him. From the outside, Ollivanders is shabby, faded, and peeling. But inside, it’s packed with curiosity and untapped magic. Rowling’s paragraph soars with the senses. She doesn’t just say, “It was quiet, and Harry felt strange.”

We feel the weight of silence and mystery. It’s ironic that singular sounds amplify the stillness and uncertainty. The distant bell. The soft voice that startles Harry. Further, the young wizard is already feeling his powers prickling. You can nearly smell and taste the dust – the history of this shop. You see towers of packaged wands. She’s generously showing instead of merely telling. Be generous with your readers.

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

— Chinese Proverb

2. Striking Imagery

Think of your favorite moments in your favorite books. Likely, they’re memorable and treasured because they struck you. They felt important because they let you in on a secret. Suddenly, something was discovered that had been missing. Maybe an odd, disturbing image caught you off guard, and you still can’t shake it today. A setting reminded you of your childhood home. You wanted to step in and defend a character that felt like your friend. Imagery impacts readers.

And your readers long to soak up these images. Read your pages and watch for moments to include visual elements. The more unique, sensory, unhinged, or weirder they are, the better! Vivid writing is compelling writing. See how Suzanne Collins drops her heroine, Katniss, into the Hunger Games arena:

“A boy, I think from District 9, reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back. Already other tributes have reached the Cornucopia and are spreading out to attack. Yes, the girl from District 2, ten yards away, running toward me, one hand clutching a half-dozen knives. I’ve seen her throw in training. She never misses. And I’m her next target.”

Striking imagery, indeed. (Pun intended.)

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft."

— Stephen King

3. Electrifying Verbs

This is a subtle move, but it’s effective. The main idea is to avoid too many being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, become, seem, etc.). They’re lazy. And when you’re using those, the writing comes across as flat and definitive instead of interesting and alive! But you also want to avoid boring, lackluster action verbs that you read all the time.

For example, if your creepy antagonist is walking around the house outside, that’s not enough. The verb walked is used every day. Perhaps he should skulk or scuttle. Villains skulk. Rats scuttle. Cockroaches scuttle.

The verb shows that he’s nervous, quick-footed. It implies that he’s sly and varmint-like. The verb scuttle almost has an onomatopoeia element about it. You can nearly hear the scratchy and shifty scuffling as he scuttles through the leaves.

The point is, skulk and scuttle electrify the scene.

Engaging Verbs for Character Dialogue

4. Illuminating Dialogue

Charlotte’s Web begins: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

E.B. White is already showing. Right out of the gate, we’re pulled into a familial yet threatening scene. A compelling contrast is shown: everyday, routine breakfast versus something unusual and hostile.

It’s a great opener.

You might be tempted to write, “Fern was a curious child, and she couldn’t understand what her father was up to that morning.” Not as effective, right? That’s telling. It’s boring. White’s instinct is the one you’re after. Setting, character, and gripping imagery are unleashed in fewer than twenty words of dialogue.

You’ve heard “less is more,” yes? Not always the case, but punchy, engaging dialogue is part of showing. Write your dialogue with purpose. Not as a means to an end. Let your dialogue illuminate (or show) elements of the plot, character, setting, etc.

5. Engaged Characters

One last tip to help you write an engaging novel and show not tell is through engaged characters.

The way your characters respond says a great deal about who they are. Remember: just because a character hears a question or comment aimed at them, they have options. People don’t always respond with words.

Perhaps a child doesn’t respond verbally when his teacher asks him to answer. Maybe he locks eyes with her and rolls his pencil to the edge of his desk. Then he lets it fall to the floor. That’s a piece of character development, and you’re working to show the disrespect instead of simply telling, “Tim was a disrespectful, unwilling kid. And Mrs. Meyer knew it better than anyone.”

We enjoy dialogue and the momentum it provides in a story. But your characters can also engage with the world around them. They can react. They can speak loudly with their actions. Allow them to use pieces of their environment.

It's a balancing act

As with most aspects of writing, you’re after balance. It’s not about casting out all being verbs or bringing every single scene to life via all the senses. That could get excessive. “Show don’t tell” is a principle to write by, sure. But exposition has its place. Setup is required sometimes. There are appropriate moments for the abstract language that will later become clear.

It’s just important that you’re making a conscious effort to show. Express scenes, characters, ideas, and situations in a concrete manner. When you do, your story will be a full-blown journey in which your readers live vicariously through your central characters.

Suddenly, your book is the book they can’t put down.

Best books on showing vs telling

© 2020 Novel Treasure


Janice from Pretoria on September 06, 2020:

Useful indeed

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 05, 2020:

Useful article - thank you for posting it here.

Rosina S Khan on February 04, 2020:

Novel, thank you for sharing this piece. I found the "Show Don't Tell" technique extremely valuable, and I think I will start using more of this technique in my writings from now on. This piece makes its point vivid through clearly illustrated facts and examples as well, and it will help a good deal of other writers also.

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