"Show, Don't Tell": Good Advice?

writing craft

Post written by Katie Wall.

It doesn't take very long for an aspiring writer to hear the oft-quoted saying “show, don't tell.” I remember nodding sagely when this advice was given in my university creative writing classes while simultaneously wondering what that even meant. I thought, How can you show with the written word? Aren't you automatically telling since you're telling a story?

What no one explained to me is that "showing" instead of "telling" is not about whether or not you use descriptive language. Writing “she felt the blossoming tendrils of love wrap themselves around her heart” is telling just as much as writing “she started falling in love.”

So what, then, is showing?

Showing allows the reader to see the character in the scene, to see the actions and reactions that make them believable.

So instead of telling the reader that this character is falling in love, show it. How does the character's body language change? What does she do? How does she act toward the person she is falling in love with? Toward her ex-lover? Toward her flirty coworker?

Showing can mean that you end up writing whole scenes you weren't planning on. This makes a good test: is the detail you are telling important enough to spend a few sentences on? A few paragraphs on? A whole scene on?

For example, if I was writing a story about a girl whose mother was unkind to her, I could write, “Jane's mother had never been kind to her.” Or I could include some dialogue or other interaction in a scene showing Jane’s mother being unkind. I could also include a memory or flashback of a time Jane's mother was unkind to her when she was a child, not only to drive the pattern home with the reader, but also to show the duration of the treatment.

Or if I was writing a scene about a disgruntled old man waiting for the bus, I could tell you that he was disgruntled or I could write about how he hunched his shoulders, grunted, and slid away from someone else who sat down on the bench to wait.

See how when we show what is happening the reader is allowed to see it, to feel included and brought in to the story instead of only being told the conclusion the author wants them to come away from the scene with?

What is telling?

If you think about watching a play, you'll see action on the stage and hear the dialogue (that's showing), but you might also hear a narrator break in and explain things or give you more information. That's what telling is!

In a novel, though, there doesn't always have to be a separate narrator. Instead, you might just include more information in whatever person you're using. Let me give you an example of a telling statement in each of the three common persons:

  • Third person: She was hungry. (present tense: She is hungry.)
  • Second person: You were hungry. (present tense: You are hungry.)
  • First person: I was hungry. (present tense: I am hungry.)

Now, if that was going to be converted to showing, then you would say something like:

  • She/You/I grabbed the roll and devoured it in seconds.

See how in the telling examples you're communicating something to the reader in a way that is explaining (narrating) it instead of communicating it through action?

So is "Show, Don't Tell" good advice?

While I think there is merit in bringing to light that showing and telling are both tools in the writer's toolbox, telling a writer "show, don't tell" is like telling a handyman "hammer, don't screw." There is a place for both showing and telling--the trick is to make sure you're using the right one for the job.

I hope this brings some clarity to what showing and telling mean. But how can we as writers employ this as we write? How do we use this information to hone our craft?

Before we write

  • we can really get to know the reason our characters want the things they want as well as what is standing in their way
  • we can think carefully about the forces that have shaped our characters to be who they are
  • we can determine what aspects of our characters and their relationships are most important to emphasize

We can help you with this in our Story Planning coaching package.

While we write

  • we can be mindful of what details need to be shown versus told
  • we can catch ourselves when we start to sum something up into a quick phrase or sentence of telling and ask ourselves if allowing our reader to experience the scene for themselves would make the story stronger at this particular moment
  • we can ask ourselves how our character is acting or responding to the events and people around them and record those reactions on the page
  • we can put more on the page than we think is necessary; it is always easier to trim down than to try and edit material that isn’t there

Join The Alcove, our writing community, to get weekly feedback on your writing snippets!

When we revise

  • we can reread the manuscript and highlight each instance where we have told our reader things
  • we can evaluate if those instances support the narrative drive and the point of the story; if not, we can remove them
  • we can evaluate which of those things can be reworked into a few sentences that show the reader the action
  • we can evaluate which of those things need to be reworked into paragraphs or scenes that more fully flesh out this important material

I can help you with this! Check out my revision coaching services.

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