The “show, don’t tell” concept is credited to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who once said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
However, it was Ernest Hemingway, one of the best writers of his generation, who helped popularize this seemingly elusive technique.
Drawing from his journalist background, Hemingway pointed out that writers can actually strengthen their prose by omitting, or leaving out, certain things. His “iceberg theory” states that:
“The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
If you think about it, both Chekhov and Hemingway suggest a kind of respect for your reader: readers should be trusted to understand your point without you having to painfully lay it out for them. And that's what the concept of “show, don't tell” boils down to.
A powerful reading experience is one that allows the reader to experience and visualize the written word using their own devices.
And that lays the foundation for some powerful writing when you set out to write a book.
In this article, we’ll explain what exactly it means to show not tell in writing, and how you can apply it to improve your own craft as an author.
Here’s how to show, don’t tell in writing:
- Know what it means to show, not tell in writing
- Understand why showing and not telling is important
- Identify effective show, don’t tell writing examples
- Learn why our brains prefer to be shown, not told
- Employ writing strategies to show, don’t tell
- Showing vs telling in writing: when to show, and when to tell
#1 – Know what it means to show, not tell
To show, not tell is a writing technique that illustrates what is happening or being conveyed, which engages the reader by allowing them to visualize, imagine, or feel an event, concept, or emotion through reading. When you show and don’t tell, you are showing your reader what is happening, instead of telling them what is happening through statements. By showing the reader what’s happening through words, the author is able to facilitate a reaction in the reader, by allowing them to use their imagination to conjure a mental image and invoke feelings of what they have read.
When an author shows instead of tells, they are able to engage the reader in the writing and improve the reader’s experience. This makes the process of reading more interactive, and memorable.
Authors that employ the show, not tell writing technique are able to improve their writing craft and development, and essentially “paint a picture” with their words. To become an author, you'll need to master the concept of show, not tell in your own writing.
#2 – Understand why showing and not telling is important in your writing
From learning how to craft an essay in language arts class to reading books from experts on writing development, you’ve likely been told to “show, not tell” in your writing more times than you can count.
So why is it so important?
As anyone who has written even a few words knows, there are many different ways of saying the same thing. But the key is to say what you need to say without directly telling your reader what’s happening with statements.
Think of yourself as a facilitator in your book’s adventure: you want to show your reader the way, not directly tell them the obvious. And this is true not only for fiction, but for writing nonfiction, too.
Let the reader’s imagination take over. It makes reading what you’ve written that much more enjoyable. It impacts the reader in a unique way that makes your story memorable.
Benefits of showing, not telling in your writing:
- Engages the reader. When you show, don’t tell in your own writing, the reader is subtly invited to become active in your text. The reader has to use some of their own devices, like their own imagination and perspective, to experience what is happening in your story. When you simply tell, it can allow the reader to be passive.
- Improves the reader’s experience. When the reader is invited to actively participate in your writing, the overall reading experience will be more powerful. Your writing should make it easy for the reader to jump right in to your story, where they’re able to imagine the scenes, feel the emotion, and interact with your words.
- Strengthens your writing development. The show, don’t tell concept isn’t new, and is probably the most common strategy you hear about when it comes to improving your writing. And it’s because it’s one of the fundamentals of strong writing. When you can show, not tell with your words, you can strengthen your craft immensely.
- Makes your writing memorable. When your reader is shown what happens with literary devices rather than told with statements, they’ll remember your story. It makes your writing more memorable, because the writer has invoked their own imagination and sentiments to feel what happened. It’s why many readers prefer the book version to a movie version.
#3 – Identify effective show, don’t tell writing examples
Consider the following example: I met John.
No details, just a simple statement. This is telling at its most basic.
If we wanted to “show” our relationship with John, we could have said: I met my enemy, John.
Now, let’s embellish that a bit, in the simplest ways possible: I greeted my nemesis, John.
Simply by changing the verb and the noun, we have created a more descriptive, yet equally simple, phrase.
So far, we’re still “telling,” though. To “show,” we would need to add some detail: I shook John’s hand. Hard.
A bit awkward, but we’re moving in the right direction. Now, one of the tricks of modern, trendy writing is to love specifics. So, let’s break down our noun, hand, to its most basic components:
My fingers squeezed John’s. Hard.
Almost there. However, we’re still lacking two things: sensory detail and emotional tells. What more can we learn about the encounter?
I squeezed John’s fingers. Hard. His signet ring dug into my flesh, but I ignored the pain.
A simple encounter has suddenly come alive with emotion and innuendo. The reader realizes that John and the hero have an adversarial relationship, without the author ever stating the fact. A signet ring implies wealth, prestige. And the hero ignoring the pain implies he loathes John enough to hide his discomfort.
My relationship with John is complicated.
#4 – Learn why our brains prefer to be shown, not told
Some believe that the popularity of “showing” may be because of movies and TV shows. The more we watch these, the more we expect similar techniques to be employed in the books we read.
According to this explanation, readers are used to watching the story unfold on screen, not having it narrated to them. “Showing” mimics this by describing what a viewer might watch in a movie.
Personally, I doubt this is the main reason. Sure, books written in a “telling” style can come across as a David Attenborough documentary. I mean, we’re already watching the lion eyeing that gazelle. We don’t need Sir David’s soothing voice informing us of the fact.
However, Chekhov wrote for the theatre and died long before the first TV shows. And Hemingway wrote at a time when the most popular show was the Ed Sullivan one—hardly a monument to breakneck action.
I believe that “show, don’t tell” works because of the way our brains are wired. If you don’t name the emotion you are trying to describe, the emotional resonance is much stronger. As soon as you name an emotion, however, your readers slip into thinking mode. And when they think about an emotion, they distance themselves from the experience of feeling it.
Also, we communicate mostly with body language. When we interact with people, we grasp much more through nonverbal cues than with solely verbal ones (that is why, according to studies, it's easier to lie over the phone).
Yes, it’s easy to forget this when everyone around us is typing on their phone screens. In truth, we haven't changed much, and we still pick up precious clues from subtleties like a tilt of a head, a narrowing of eyes, a twitch of a lip or a shift of a hand. These visual cues convey in a split-second more information than an entire conversation.
#5 – Employ writing strategies to show, not tell
So, the next question is, how do we show, not tell? How can we show our reader what’s happening in our story, and avoid telling them directly?
There are a few different techniques that can help you frame your writing to show, not tell. To help you practice the strategies discussed here, try experimenting with writing prompts to boost your creativity.
As you try to incorporate some of these techniques, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come natural to you at first. With enough practice, you’ll start to show not tell in your writing without a second-thought.
By equipping yourself with the techniques and strategies to show your reader what’s happening with your words, you’ll eventually find the techniques that fit your writing style best.
Ways to show, don’t tell in writing:
- Strengthen the verb and noun
- Describe your setting
- Use the five senses
- Use beats to replace adverbs and dialogue tags
- Focus on the action
- Use visual cues to depict emotion
- Incorporate figurative language
Let’s take a look at these ways to show and not tell in more detail:
#1 – Strengthen the verb and noun
Whenever you’re on the hunt for an opportunity to show, not tell in your writing, first take a look at the verbs and nouns in your writing.
Chances are, you can improve your sentences by simply switching out certain words to include strong verbs and nouns.
If you need ideas for strong verbs to use, check out this list of strong verbs.
#2 – Describe your setting
Show your reader what your setting looks like instead of telling them what it is. When writing a setting, describing what the environment looks like is an easy way to show, not tell.
Include details in your setting to help your reader visualize what you are describing. Make it easy for your reader to feel as if they are literally in the scenes.
You can easily describe your setting by including sensory details, vivid vocabulary, and figurative language.
Tip: Don’t feel the need to describe every scene’s setting in full detail. In fact, skilled writers often avoid doing this because it bores the reader. Only describe in detail important settings that contribute to the scene, mood, or plot within your story.
#3 – Use the five senses
Incorporating sensory details is a surefire way to add a sense of “showing” to your story. Sensory details are those that apply to the five senses, and this will help you frame your writing in a way that appeals to those senses.
When you craft your character outline, think about your character’s senses. What are they seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting, or hearing?
Asking yourself those questions can help you brainstorm ideas on how to engage your reader’s senses through your character’s lens.
#4 – Use beats to replace adverbs and dialogue tags
The best way to do this is through a beat. The Writer’s Digest describes beats as follows:
“Beats are descriptions of physical action—minor or major—that fall between lines of speech to punch up your dialogue. When a character raises an eyebrow or furrows his brow, this action, or beat, interrupts the dialogue and telegraphs a change in the character's emotional state.”
Beats are especially useful in the context of the “show, don’t tell” guideline. They can be used to replace adverbs and dialogue tags. Here’s an example:
“I don’t know,” Sally said anxiously.
This is a perfect example of a sentence just begging for more of a beat. And that adverb is just lazy writing, isn’t it? So, how about using a beat to “show” us instead of telling us?
Sally clutched the hem of her dress, then forced herself to release it and straightened the fabric with long, nervous strokes. “I don’t know,” she said.
Isn’t that more engaging? Still, there is a little more fun to be had. We’ve got rid of the adverb. But beats are also great when used as an alternative to dialogue tags. Instead of using the tired old “he said-she said,” you can use beats to indicate whose turn it is to speak. In the previous example, is there any doubt it is Sally doing the talking? So, let’s get rid of the “she said” altogether:
Sally clutched the hem of her dress. “I don’t know.” She forced herself to release the dress and straightened the fabric with long, nervous strokes. “I really don’t know.”
You can use beats this way not only to avoid excessive dialogue tags but also to write dialogue with more color and emotion—in the case of poor Sally, nervousness.
#5 – Focus on the action
Evoke meaning in your story by focusing on the actions that will push your narrative forward. This is an especially useful strategy if you’re struggling to discern what to focus on when trying to “show” in your writing.
Pinpoint the actions your character is taking, or the actions involved in an event, and decide how to show those actions.
#6 – Use visual cues to depict emotion
When writing, we can describe these visual cues to solve a common problem. Authors often struggle with depictions of emotions. Describing a house is easy enough. But how do you show an emotion when you can’t name it?
Again, emotional beats come to the rescue. For example, “she was surprised by this” is a common example of “telling.”
“Her eyes widened and her mouth slacked,” on the other hand, gives us the very image of surprise, without ever mentioning the word.
As you can imagine, this can be tough. Thankfully, some thirty years ago a psychologist called Paul Ekman did cross-cultural research and identified seven basic human emotions. He did this by studying facial expressions. No matter where in the world, what culture, class, race, gender, or lighting, seven facial expressions were identified across the board:
- Anger is signified by eyebrows down and drawn together. The eyes glare. The lips narrow.
- In contempt, the lip corner tightens and rises on only one side of the face.
- With disgust, the nose wrinkles and the upper lip rises.
- In surprise, the eyebrows rise for a second while the eyes widen and the mouth opens. A hand may hide the mouth.
- Fear has the eyebrows raised and pulled together. The upper eyelids rise while the lower ones tense. Lips stretch slightly and horizontally back to ears.
- Sadness is characterized by drooping upper eyelids. The eyes lose their focus and there’s a slight pulling down of the lip corners.
- Finally, happiness pushes up cheeks. The lips curve upwards. Crow’s feet wrinkles appear and the muscle that orbits the eye moves.
They can be the shortcut to displaying your hero’s emotions through emotional beats (you can see examples of these on the Writing Helpers Blog).
Raised eyebrows rise, wide eyes, and an open mouth behind a raised hand. Color me surprised.
#7 – Use literary devices
Literary devices are like adding flavor to your writing, and they can be used to prevent your story from tasting bland to the reader.
There are many literary devices that can be used as tools to help you show, not tell in your writing, so it’s important that you add these techniques to your author’s toolbox.
Literary elements woven throughout your story will help you illustrate the storyline, clarify certain points, draw attention to particular details, and encourage readers to interact with your story a bit deeper.
#6 – Showing vs telling in writing: when telling is better
“Showing” is a great tool but comes with a warning: it’s lengthy. Say your heroine is driving past a house—one that is quite unimportant for your scene. It may be preferable to describe it as follows:
The house was run-down and dirty.
The flowers in the front garden were long dead. The grass was knee-high. Paint was flaking from the window frames. As she pushed open the front door, a rotten smell hit her. Patches of damp mold crept up the walls. She took one step forward, stepping onto an uneven, creaky floorboard.
Is “showing” more evocative? Definitely. Is it more effective? It depends. You may not want to use a whole paragraph where a simple line might suffice, especially during expositions or simple descriptions.
If every single item your heroine encounters in described in such detail throughout each of your book chapters, how can the truly important elements stand out?
“Showing” requires more words, while “telling” may cover a greater span of time more concisely. A novel that contains only beautiful “showing” prose would soon become draining, as readers would be forced to immerse themselves into a rapid succession of snapshots. Therefore, a narrative can—and should—contain some legitimate telling.
James Scott Bell stresses why “show, don't tell” should not be applied in every single incident in a story:
“Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted.”
To summarize, “showing” is time-consuming and can bloat your story. So, it’s best used only for scenes which are important to the story. However, what happens between scenes can often be “told” to speed up the pace. The point here is to find the right balance of “telling” versus “showing,” summarizing versus action. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.
There comes a point when we fall into the trap of writing for writing’s sake. Which, arguably, is a much more serious offense than “telling.”
So, as with everything, use your judgment, and don’t let your writing get in the way of your storytelling.
Writing is hard, and while there are plenty of writing tips and techniques to help you improve your writing craft, there ultimately isn’t a right and wrong answer. When faced with self-doubt as a writer, it's important to remember that even the best authors bend the rules of writing.
Practice showing and not telling in your own writing, and you’ll soon find how to apply it in a way that fits your unique author voice and writing style.
Related: 4 Exposition Mistakes to Avoid