What Does "Show, Don’t Tell" Mean?
“Show, Don’t Tell” is popular writing advice you will hear in almost every writing class, but what exactly does it mean? How do you use Show, Don’t Tell in your writing?
Let’s start by explaining the difference between showing and telling.
What Is Telling?
This is a form of writing that uses matter-of-fact statements to tell the reader exactly how to feel, what to think, and what to know about the story and its characters.
Think of the story as a jigsaw puzzle. With telling, you are presenting the jigsaw puzzle to the reader already completed.
Example: With sadness, Laura watched the ship sail away.
What Is Showing?
This is a form of writing that shows messages, feelings, thoughts, and other story elements through description.
Think of it as giving the reader the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and letting them put it together themselves.
Example: The ship became smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the sunset. Laura raised a shaky hand to her red-lipsticked lips and stifled a small cry. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said weakly.
The telling example relayed facts. The showing example used description in action and dialogue.
Why Is Showing Important?
The main reason you want to show over tell is to immerse readers in the world and headspace of your characters. Showing allows readers to feel like they are a part of the story, instead of being outside observers, and it is often cited as one of the key contributors to that feeling of getting lost in a good book.
Showing helps readers feel closer to the action via proximity to the character’s inner world, a sense of immediacy in the plot, and easier access to the narrative's emotional aspects. Readers are more likely to cry or laugh because they are shown what makes something sad or funny. They care for the characters more strongly and feel the twists and turns of the plot more intimately.
Telling, in contrast, creates distance between the character and the reader. Conclusions are neatly laid out in front of the reader in the form blunt statements, such as “he was mad” or “the letter meant trouble.”
These types of statements are usually not how we experience real life either. In real life, we first have the observation, such as “his nostrils flared, and his eyes bulged from his head” or “specks of blood stained the pages of the letter.” From these details, we can draw the same conclusions of anger or danger as with the blunt statements, but they are relayed to us in the same way as they would be in real life.
What Are the Types of Telling?
To summarize the different forms of telling, think MODES:
These are places in the story where telling often lurks.
Telling example: Annie went to the bar because she wanted to forget her dead husband.
The text tells the reader directly why Annie is doing the thing she is doing and leaves them nothing to unpack.
Showing example: Annie twisted the ring around her finger over and over until the skin was raw and tender. She took it off with one quick jerk and went down to the bar.
Telling example: Mr. Rhodes was a brutish and unfeeling man.
Opinion is the authorial voice telling the reader what they should think about a character. These types of descriptions are also vague. “Unfeeling” will bring to mind something different to different readers.
Showing example: Mr. Rhodes never gave out any candy on Halloween and instead put up a sign saying “all of your teeth will rot.”
Telling example: It was fall.
The right kind of description is showing. But here we mean a straight-forward description that lacks shown details. Someone in California will envision fall much differently than someone in Minnesota. It is better writing to describe not that it was fall, but what fall means.
Showing example: Leaves crunched on the sidewalk and a cool breeze made my cheeks flush.
Telling example: Aiden was sad.
Stating an emotion often renders it imprecise and does not translate anything deeper to the reader. The author can show the same emotion through breaking down what the emotion looks like.
Showing example: Dishes piled up in the sink into small, decaying mountains. The laundry was an ocean of fabric on the bedroom floor. Aiden was nowhere to be found, but the imprint in his bed was archeological.
Telling example: Allie saw Hannah seated by the window. She parked her car illegally, grabbed her purse, and opened her car door.
Stage direction happens when you write actions a character does and it reads like a list. Instead, add context that moves the plot forward or reveals something about your character. Sometimes, you can cut this action, too.
Showing example: Hannah was seated at a booth with the menu in front of her. Allie swerved into the nearest parking spot, red line and all. Still time, Allie repeated to herself like a mantra. She grabbed her purse. There’s still time.
How to Fix Show, Don’t Tell
Now that you know what telling looks like, you can identify the telling spots in your story and rewrite them. Here are a few strategies.
This strategy involves hunting down the tell in your story using MODES and dramatizing the moment. It reverse engineers the statement down into its components so the reader can put it together themselves, turning 4 into 2 + 2.
You can reverse engineer your tells by describing details, choosing strong verbs, and focusing on how something is happening instead of why it’s happening.
Telling example: Tommy was scared of the dark because it made him feel all alone.
Showing example: Tommy gripped the blanket in both hands and yanked it up to his chin. He held his breath and curled into a ball like he had seen roly-polies do at recess.
Inside, Outside Test
This is an easy litmus test for whether you are showing. It boils down to the question: Are you inside the character’s head looking out or outside of it looking in?
Signs of outside telling: characters are overly self-aware, they name their emotions, or they explain their actions or motives in detail.
Signs of inside showing: characters are focusing on things right in front of them, they have bodily responses, and their knowledge is limited.
Telling example: I moved across the room with a look of trepidation on my face. Joy coursed through my veins unbeknownst to anyone else.
Without a mirror, we rarely know any expression we’re making, much less a look of trepidation. And, when we’re happy or excited, we rarely consider what is running through our veins. That’s how we can tell the story is being told from outside of the character.
Showing example: I picked my way across the crowded hall. Has the floor always been such a lovely shade of eggshell white? Has the muggy summer air always been so sweet? Eyes burned against my cheeks, but most likely because they hadn’t noticed the floors yet.
This includes a strong character voice and focuses on what’s right in front of the character, such as the floors and the way the people are looking at her instead of how she looks toward them. We are more firmly placed in her headspace and observations.
A character-first approach means prioritizing your characters' thoughts, feelings, and concerns before the readers’. Writers often feel the need to over-explain parts of the story to make sure readers “get it," such as info-dumping about the world or characters' backstories, but this can weaken the writing. It doesn’t let the text stand on its own and may convey an author’s lack of confidence in the readers. It is much stronger to provide the details to readers and let them put the puzzle pieces together themselves.
You can use a character-first approach through stylizing your character’s voice to let their personality shine through. A strong voice can add life to the text and make it so even when you do need to tell, you can tell with style.
Telling example: The lantern-carrier wore a long, black cloak. She gripped a rusted, wrought-iron lamp and walked bent and stooped despite her youth.
This is matter of fact and tells us very little about the narrator and what to think about the figure the narrator is describing.
Showing example: A Halloween-ass looking cloak swept the ground. The only thing missing from the lantern was a plastic spider hanging off the rusted handle. The figure holding it walked with a swaying gait and stooped back. You're twenty-five! Cory wanted to yell. But of course, even death was a theme park these days.
This passage tells us less about the lantern, but more about how the narrator feels about where she is and current events. This kind of stylizing can be more engaging and give the reader a sense of the world and narrator all at once.
Test what you have learned. Rewrite the passage below by applying the principles and strategies from the article.
The zombie looked frightening as it jumped out of the storage locker.
“Ah!” I screamed and tried to jump back. My good arm was torn at by the creature.