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“The girl was scared of the wilderness, her heart pounding at every frightening noise. But suddenly, her fear disappeared. She touched the ground, and it felt like her new guardian.” What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one, this passage doesn’t actually paint much of a picture. And it fails to make me feel anything as a reader. That’s the core problem with writing that relies too much on telling. We’re told the girl is scared, that the noises are frightening, and that this place feels like a guardian. Yet there isn’t much evidence to back up those claims. “Show, don’t tell” is a phrase you’ve probably heard often in the writing community. Author K.M. Weiland best captures the distinction: “Showing dramatizes. Telling summarizes.” But it can be hard to identify harmful instances of telling in your own writing. Telling is NOT inherently bad. In fact, all novels are a blend of telling and showing. You don’t always need to “show” instead of tell.
If that were the case, all stories would be ridiculously long and filled with unnecessary descriptions. Telling is useful for quickly conveying the passage of time or presenting important facts to the reader without belaboring the point. Take a look at the opening of the children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another. We’re told some information about Mary being a disagreeable-looking child who has always been ill. But that statement is immediately supported by the visual proof of her thin face and hair, along with her sour expression. If someone flags your writing for too much “telling,” that likely means you need
to provide details or a strong narrative voice to make the reader feel something. Good writing invites the reader to visualize the scene and experience the emotions themselves rather than being told how to feel. In his TED Talk “The clues to a great story,” Pixar writer and director Andrew Stanton proposes the unifying theory of two plus two. He says, “Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.” The opening of Wall-E relies entirely on showing the audience the equation without giving them the answer, and he describes why that approach is effective: “Storytelling without dialogue. It's the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It's the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal.
We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It's not just that they're damn cute; it's because they can't completely express what they're thinking and what their intentions are. And it's like a magnet. We can't stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.” The same principle is true for other, non-visual modes of storytelling. The key to making your audience care in fiction is to imply your meaning rather than always pointing it out. Readers love the process of discovery and solving puzzles. Before we dive into some practical strategies, I want to take a two-minute detour to explore the origins of “show, don’t tell” as a writing mantra, since it’s not often discussed. In his 2004 book Creative Writing and the New Humanities, scholar Paul Dawson describes how the novel transformed across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the rise of realism
as a literary movement. Realism aims to tell the stories of ordinary people with complete honesty rather than romanticizing them. Dawson notes: “From Flaubert onwards the trajectory of the novel is often regarded as the development of techniques to impersonalise the narrator in order to efface the presence of the implied author, and dramatise as much of the action as possible.” Literary critic Percy Lubbock praised those nineteenth-century realists for giving the novel a defined aesthetic, and it’s his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction that likely popularized the idea of “showing vs. telling.” He says: “ . . . the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself.” Authors like Virginia Woolf both praised and criticized Lubbock for confining the novel-writing craft to a formal system. His ideas were incredibly influential in the literary world. Basically, the intention of this advice is to turn the author into an invisible narrator
and avoid breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. Janice Hardy makes a similar observation in her 2016 writing guide Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: “A common rule of thumb: As long as it feels like the character is thinking it, you’re usually okay. But as soon as it sounds like the author butting in to explain things, you’ve probably fallen into telling.” If you want readers to experience the story’s emotions on a gut level, you’ve gotta know when to show. Generally speaking, moments involving emotions, opinions, or sensations are best shown rather than told. Here are six guiding principles for stronger “showing.” Number One: Use evidence to support your claims. If a narrator says her husband is a kind-hearted person, or the protagonist believes his best friend is guilty of murder, what led them to that conclusion? Give the reader the same evidence the character uses when it comes to assumptions or opinions. Author Chuck Palahniuk advises a ban on “thought” verbs like “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,”
“realizes,” “believes,” “wants,” “remembers,” and “imagines.” He talks about “unpacking” scenes so that the reader feels and thinks what the characters are feeling and thinking. He gives this example: Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.” Palahniuk adds, “Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.” You can pull readers into the story by presenting evidence—whether that’s a visual detail or a piece of dialogue—and letting them come to their own conclusions about the impression you’re trying to create.
Number Two: Replace the abstract with the concrete. In particular, be careful about directly stating a character’s feelings. The blog “Novel Writing Help” by Harvey Chapman gives a great before-and-after example: Telling: “After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby walked home feeling happier than he’d ever felt in all his thirteen years.” Showing: “After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby couldn’t keep the goofy grin off his face all the way home. When he came to the front gate, he jumped clean over it, didn’t come close to tripping.” Chapman further explains why the changes work: “Happiness is an abstract concept and needs to be demonstrated (shown not told) with concrete details, like the wide grin and the gate-jumping.” So, you can often replace emotions with actions that allow the reader to infer the emotion. Also be wary of descriptions that use opinion-related adjectives, like “beautiful” or “strange.” In a first draft, I might write, “The dark forest felt eerie.” Okay, maybe it feels eerie to the character, but the reader needs to feel it, too.
I need to convince the reader that it’s eerie using evidence: “The forest hummed with the cries of children long dead.” That’s better—sufficiently eerie. Replace adjective labels with details that allow the reader to interpret the atmosphere on their own. A trick for identifying when you’re in “abstract” territory is to ask a question that Jeff Gerke poses in his book The First 50 Pages: Can the camera see it? Almost all examples of “showing” contain a detail that can be visualized, although you’ll often want to combine those visuals with smell, touch, taste, and sound. Author Jerry Jenkins provides great examples of replacing abstract emotions with concrete actions on his blog: Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind. Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.” Another way of thinking about this “camera” idea is to consider the effect and not the
cause of a particular detail. Take a look at these additional examples from Jerry Jenkins: Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun. Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street. Telling: Suzie was blind. Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane. Telling: It was late fall. Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet. In the first example, the cold temperature is the cause of specific effects on the character, namely Bill’s nose burning in the frigid air. Instead of being stated outright, the details are instead shown through how the character interacts with the world around them—like leaves crunching underneath their feet—which makes the scene more visual. Number Three: Substitute vague descriptions with specific sensory details. Above all, showing relies on specificity. Unique sensory details make feelings and scenes jump off the page. Author Delilah Dawson talks about invoking the senses to make the world-building feel
three-dimensional. In her first draft of a sentence, she writes, “Aga walked through the market, gaping at the rugs and bins of spices.” Now, she could’ve said, “Aga marveled at all the market’s wondrous sights,” but instead of using abstract concepts like “marveled” or “wondrous,” she includes the concrete action of Aga gaping at the rugs and bins of spices. But even though that creates a mental image, it’s not very specific, and it doesn’t invoke any senses beyond sight. In her second draft, Dawson writes, “Aga walked through the market as if through a dream. Spicy cinnamon and rich coffee rode the air as she ran her fingers down silken tassels and through powdery barrels of golden saffron.” Adding details makes this description feel much more immersive, and it’s unique to this particular story. When showing details, try to go beyond the obvious and expected. For instance, a funeral scene will often show everyone wearing black as it begins to rain, the main character standing with an umbrella in front of her mother’s grave.
What if you showed details that contrasted with the somber atmosphere? If an emotional scene feels too cliché, try changing the setting or the way the characters describe their emotions, as author Gail Carson Levine recommends: “What if, instead of an ordinary day, it’s Christmas day, in southern Texas? Begone drizzle, hello dry air. What if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn’t make sense to anyone, but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it’s different.” Number Four: Avoid relying too much on body language. A lot of writing advice suggests using body language to imply a character’s emotions. Crossed arms might show that someone is pissed off, whereas tapping fingers can indicate impatience. Those physical details can make for good emotional shorthand. However, it’s easy to over-rely on body language as a form of showing.
In real life, how often do you see someone clench their fists or grit their teeth when they’re angry? How often have you done that yourself when you’re angry? Common facial expressions and gestures are great for quickly conveying a character’s mood, but they rarely evoke an emotional response from the reader. In an article on C.S. Lakin’s blog Live Write Thrive, Editor Robin Patchen describes how writers can show emotions through actions and thoughts rather than bodily sensations alone. As she says, “having a character clenching his fists might show us he’s angry, but it doesn’t show us the impetus for that anger. Is he feeling frustrated, slighted, or jealous?” She gives an amazing before-and-after example. The first version relies heavily on body language: Mary opened her eyes and looked at the clock. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. The baby had slept nearly eight hours. But little Jane never slept more than four hours at a time. Something must be wrong. Not again. Her stomach rolled over when she remembered the last time a child of hers had slept too
long. At first glance, it seems like the story is “showing” the character’s emotions because her heart and stomach are reacting. But that same lack of subtlety makes the descriptions feel forced and melodramatic. Patchen’s second version of this scene moves away from visceral reactions and focuses on the character’s individual thought process: Mary opened her eyes and squinted in the sunshine streaming in through the open window. She stretched, feeling more relaxed than she had since . . . She sat up and looked at the clock. It was after eight. Little Jane had slept through the night. For the first time. Just like Billy. Mary flipped the covers back and stood. She snatched her robe from the back of the chair and slipped it on. She wouldn’t think about Billy. The doctor said it wouldn’t happen again. The odds against it were astronomical. Billy had been nearly six weeks old. Jane was almost two months. It was different this time. It had to be. The second example feels more “in the moment.” Giving a real-time account of the character’s thought process and their interactions with
the setting can show emotional nuance better than body language. Patchen also uses strong verbs like “flipped” and “snatched” to convey a sense of panic and urgency, along with the ellipsis that indicates her thoughts trailing off. Word choice and sentence structure can be a form of showing. Robin Patchen ends with this beautiful nugget of wisdom: “Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. As a writer, you can easily show your character’s thoughts and actions. Readers are smart enough to deduce the emotions based on what the characters think and do. So often it seems writers are in a hurry. When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show the actions.” If you need help brainstorming how feelings might manifest, check out The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, which lists a variety of ways you can convey different emotions, from anguish to wanderlust. Number Five: Show emotion through dialogue.
Dialogue is a powerful tool for proving a character’s feelings or personality to the reader. Instead of saying, “Mary was angry at Bob,” you could have Mary shout at Bob, “You wretched picklemonger. How dare you!” This is also the reason many writing advice articles warn against using adverbs. They weaken the dialogue because they tell rather than show. In the above dialogue, we can tell Mary’s tone from her words alone, not to mention the volume, given she’s shouting. I don’t need to write, “shouted angrily” because the word “angrily” is telling the reader information we’ve already shown. Similarly, some writers feel tempted to “telegraph” a character’s intentions in a conversation, even though the dialogue already shows that information: He tried to be diplomatic. “Please, just listen to what I have to say.” “Well, that doesn’t matter,” she said, changing the subject. “Let’s move on to something else.” In this exchange, the author is telling the reader what conclusions to make when they should trust that their readers are smart enough to figure it out on their own. A revised version might include more visuals and a dialogue tag that conveys a specific
tone: He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please, just listen to what I have to say.” “Well, that doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “Let’s move on to something else.” When writing highly emotional dialogue, it might be helpful in the first draft to pretend you’re writing a play or screenplay, since that forces you to focus on conveying emotion through dialogue alone. Oscar Wilde is known for his snappy dialogue, particularly in his play The Importance of Being Earnest. In the opening scene, a young gentleman named Algernon visits with his best friend Jack, who has come to propose to Algernon’s cousin. The dialogue carries the emotions of the scene: ALGERNON: You behave as if you were married to her already. You are not married to her already, and I don’t think you ever will be. JACK: Why on earth do you say that? ALGERNON: Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right. JACK: Oh, that is nonsense! ALGERNON: It isn’t. It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place. In the second place, I don’t give my consent. JACK: Your consent!
Based on the tone of their words alone, the reader can assume what the characters are feeling, even though the audience isn’t told that information directly. You can learn more about writing subtext in dialogue in my video on the subject. Number Six: Filter observations through the narrative voice. “Show, don’t tell” often means going deeper into the narrative point of view, whether you’re filtering the story through the lens of one character or a more distant narrator. It’s about giving details that allow the reader to feel more connected to the point-of-view character through what they’re experiencing. This closeness can be achieved through phrasing straightforward statements in a unique way. Reddit user chevron_seven_locked shares some great examples of telling vs. showing on the r/writing subreddit: He was a rude and inconsiderate man. This is Telling. We know the character is rude and inconsiderate because the writer told us. “Outta my way, you jerk!” he yelled at the woman struggling to lift her stroller onto the bus. This is Showing. We can deduce that the character is rude and inconsiderate based on the situation we just
read. Telling: She was uncomfortable around him. Showing: She stiffened in his embrace. Telling: The house was huge. Showing: His whole family could live in the kitchen alone. Telling: She was hungry. Showing: She near-inhaled the soup. In all of these examples, we learn the same information through Showing, but with more flavor and character. You’ll notice that all these examples involve replacing “was” with a more interesting verb, just as in earlier examples. Since “was,” and its cousin word “felt,” are often followed by an adjective, that can be a flag marking a spot where a stronger verb could be used to create that concrete image in the reader’s head. You can picture a woman stiffening in a man’s embrace, or a kitchen large enough for a family to live in, or someone inhaling soup. This extends to world-building, backstory, and infodumps in general. Sometimes authors present information like a dictionary definition rather than an in-world reference that fits naturally into the story.
As Janice Hardy notes, “An easy test for infodumps is to check if the information is for the reader’s benefit or the character’s benefit. If it’s for the reader, chances are you’re dumping and it contains told prose.” The key is to filter the world-building or exposition through the point-of-view character’s perspective. Hardy compares different ways of showing the same scene based on the character: The bland example, with Bob: “The rain poured down the window of the restaurant. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes beside him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clock ticked.” A Navy SEAL character: “The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.” A scared girl: “Rain covered the window and blurred the outside world. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her.
The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.” Let your characters’ emotions color the way they see their surroundings. The same goes for dialogue that feels like information given for the reader’s sake rather than something the character would realistically say. This leads to “As You Know, Bob” situations where one character explains something that another character already knows. Richard: No, you know how today we're heading into the land of the Giants to offer them the Jewel of Valencia in exchange for joining our quest to save Princess Isabella? Galavant: Yes, we discussed it last night in great detail. There's no need for your clunky exposition. In these situations, the dialogue isn’t phrased in the character’s voice; it’s the author talking instead, which pulls the reader out of the story. Remember that characters have prior knowledge and experience that exists outside of the narrative. Showing in dialogue often means including less detail, as in this example from Janice Hardy: Reader’s benefit: “I’ll rig up a small explosive device to blow open the door. That’s the way we did it when I was deployed in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL.”
Character’s benefit: “Um, Kevin, where’d you learn to make bombs?” “The Navy.” The true purpose behind the advice “show, don’t tell” is not to assert that all “telling” is bad writing. Telling is often necessary to bridge different scenes, and the amount of telling you use can depend on the genre, which Stewie Writes captures so succinctly: “Telling and showing are tools to control pacing. They help you focus and immerse the reader in important moments, and speed past others. What do you want the reader to remember? Identify what your ideal reader wants. Do they want a lush, immersive meandering journey? Or a light-speed thriller?” And as author Alix E. Harrow puts it, sometimes readers want to be told what’s happening, as if we’re listening to an oral storyteller spin a good yarn. She writes, “i want a strong narrative voice to come sweeping across the stage in a grand monologue that explains the whole world to me like i'm five. i want the patronizing clarity of a fairytale or a myth, which strings together a story with a series of and thens and untils.
i want a flat southern voice leaning close and saying so what had happened was...” Harrow specifically champions Micaiah Johnson’s sci-fi debut The Space Between Worlds as an example of a work that turns exposition into something searing and compelling, with narrative tension. The opening pages use a strong first-person voice to pull the reader in: When I was young and multiverse was just a theory, I was worthless: the brown girl-child of an addict in one of those wards outside the walls of Wiley City that people don’t get out of or go to. But then Adam Bosch, our new Einstein and the founder of the institute that pays me, discovered a way to see into other universes. Of course, humanity couldn’t just look. We had to enter. We had to touch and taste and take. But the universe said no. Telling is part of what differentiates novels and short stories from movies and TV shows.
Fiction writers can bottle thoughts and feelings in a way that can’t be fully replicated in another medium. Showing is meant to push writers to try harder with their prose and brainstorm specific details that bring the characters and world to life. That being said, the phrase should be amended to “show, don’t just tell.” As a quick cheat sheet, here are some places where you might consider telling or blend telling and showing: • Moments unimportant to the larger narrative (like how a character got from Point A to Point B) • Summaries of routines, time passing, or repetitive conversations • Some aspects of magic systems or sci-fi world-building (as in the Space Between Worlds excerpt) • Character thoughts • Occasional backstory and exposition o (This is usually presented as a broad sweep that tells paired with specific details that show, like in The Secret Garden example.) And here are places where you’re usually better off showing: • Emotions o Particularly the main character's feelings and assumptions about how other characters are feeling. • Sensations o This includes sight, sound, smell, taste,
and touch. • Thoughts o Words like “realized,” “thought,” and “knew” might signify this, but don’t feel like you need to avoid those words entirely. Just make sure there’s not a more interesting way you could phrase it using concrete evidence. • Attributes or opinion-related adjectives o Especially in relation to how a character, place, or situation makes the protagonist feel. If you make a claim like “He was smart,” back it up with evidence, such as mentioning the time he Macgyvered a key from dental floss and a spatula. • Flat Phrasing o This might include overused wording or an abundance of “to be” verbs like “was.” Showing means eliminating the author as the middleman and letting the reader live the story firsthand. You can show through specificity, action, dialogue, sensory details, internal thought, and narrative voice. Your first draft will often contain more telling than showing. During revisions, you can go through and highlight parts that need more flavor. Look for spots where emotions or descriptions feel vague. Replace those with specific sensory details and vivid vocabulary.
If you want to learn more about telling vs. showing, I highly recommend picking up Janice Hardy’s Understanding Show, Don’t Tell. It’s a short read that’s jampacked with practical strategies for finding red flags with “telling.” As a writing exercise, find a short paragraph or scene from one of your favorite books and replace all the showing with telling. Remember the passage I shared at the beginning of this video? That’s actually from a popular novel—except I rewrote it badly. Here’s the original text, which is an admirable example of showing a character’s emotions through her actions and a unique narrative voice. It’s from Where the Crawdads Sing by Delila Owens: Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
Do you struggle to show instead of tell? Share your thoughts with me in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.
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