Show, don’t tell – The essence of good storytelling

The phrase “show, don’t tell” reminds writers to immerse the reader in the story rather than simply telling readers what’s happening. To show rather than tell is the first rule of writing, and for good reason.

Beginner writers do too much telling when they should be showing. But of course it’s not nearly as simple as that. Both have their value; the key is to understand their respective strengths, and use each to your story’s best advantage. Mind you, like everything in writing, it isn’t even binary, but a spectrum, from the telliest tell, to the showiest show.

Showing is about using description and action to help the reader experience the story

Showing makes the writing vivid and more descriptive. Showing makes a reader feel what is going on and helps readers experience the story by allowing them to interpret the descriptions of places, actions, and scenes. It makes the reader feel they’re in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. When a writer uses showing in writing readers will feel as if they are actually there in the story, seeing the story unfolding. 

If you “show” someone an event through specific details, they’ll feel like they experienced that event alongside the fictional characters who lived it.

“It’s by being convincing in the reality and detail of how we evoke our imagined world – by what the characters do and say – that we persuade the reader to read the story we’re telling as if it really happened, even though we all know it didn’t. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat. The more I talk about Showing, the more I call it evoking,  sometimes presenting, and occasionally channelling.” John Champlin Gardner Jr. (July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982), an American novelist, essayist, literary critic and university professor.

Telling is when the author summarizes or uses exposition to simply tell the reader what is happening

Telling, on the other hand, is flat and boring and limits the experience for the reader. It also tells editors and agents you’re an amateur. After all, if the very first rule of writing is show, don’t tell, then telling says you don’t know the first thing about writing.

It’s straightforward and does nothing but give us the facts. There is no emotion behind it.

If you “tell” someone about an event, they’ll simply know the facts about what happened. Other words for “telling” include exposition and narrative summary.

While showing makes the story more interesting and emotional, telling simply helps to summarize. Moreover, writers use showing in major events of the story, and telling to describe background information, unimportant events, etc.

In Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus “The desserts are always astonishing” is a sentence that tells rather than shows. Morgenstern could simply have ended the paragraph there. Instead, she chose to tell and then show, which presents the reader with a “telling” statement before providing sensory details that bring that statement to life. As a result, the paragraph becomes much more immersive.

“The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.”

How to Show Not Tell

  • Appeal to Readers’ Senses – Used wisely, suggestive imagery can help you grab your readers’ attention, transport them to a different world, as long as you don’t draw attention to the writing itself and remind them they’re reading.
  • Use internal thoughts – Let the reader see what they are thinking and how they feel about a situation at the rawest emotional level, rather than just leaving it at “He was sad.”
  • Try the “Camera Test” – The camera test is a great way to see if you’re showing the important parts of your story. Ask yourself, “Can a camera see this?” If the answer is “no,” then you have some work to do. To take your story to the next level, imagine a camera that can capture not only images but also sounds, tastes, textures, and even smells. Try the camera test with different kinds of sensory details to make sure you’re showing the story effectively.
  • Include more dialogue – Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to put more “showing” in your writing. Dialogue allows a reader to understand what the other characters are thinking. Use your dialogue to show a character’s emotions. Their words will reflect their feelings and add more color to their descriptions. Try to “show” things to the reader through the way your characters talk. Do they stutter when they’re nervous? Use longer words when they’re trying to show off? Talk way too much—or way too little—when they’re lying or holding something back?
  • Focus on Action – Think of how you can demonstrate thoughts through actions and body language. if one of your characters has remarkable prowess in battle, consider how that could be shown on the page. Think about what’s more engaging for your reader: to read “Sir Henry was a great knight” or to walk through paragraphs of description of Sir Henry’s legendary exploits.
  • Tell First, Then Show – Sometimes, the “show” descriptions just won’t come. During your first draft, focus on getting the “tells” down. That will help you sort out the action beats and character reactions through your scene. Then, when you start revising, revisit those “tell” scenes to add descriptions. Remember the camera test: ask yourself what the camera would need to pick up on to make your scene shine.
  • Use Powerful Verbs – The simplest verbs are also the most boring. So use stronger words. Action verbs, as opposed to state-of-being verbs, trigger the theaters of your readers’ minds, allowing them an important role in experiencing your story.
  • Create a sense of setting

Ultimately, both “showing” and “telling” are important writing skills, and you’ll need to use your best judgment to find the right balance between the two in order to create a great story. If you want to keep a reader interested, Show, Don’t Tell. Draw your reader in and then hold their attention by immersing them in the world you’ve created as thoroughly as possible. Your book and your storytelling will be that much richer for it.

Telling: When Jacob failed his exam, he was embarrassed.

Showing: When Jacob saw the big red F on his essay, his cheeks flushed. He crumpled the test and hid it in his desk, hoping no one had noticed.

In his book Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue shows Jende is nervous: Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

Raymond Chandler uses strong verbs in The Big Sleep: She slammed her glass down so hard that it slopped over on an ivory cushion. She swung her legs to the floor and stood up with her eyes sparking fire and her nostrils wide. Her mouth was open and her bright teeth glared at me. Her knuckles were white.

What makes Tolkien’s Mordor so real in his Lord of the Rings cycle is its sulfurous pits and gloomy, dark detail: The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

George Orwell illustrates how to show a general idea (in this case ‘imprisonment’ and ‘suffering’) with specific detail. Read this example from his famous work about totalitarian government, 1984: To turn his head and look at her would have been inconceivable folly. With hands locked together, invisible among the press of bodies, they stared steadily in front of them, and instead of the eyes of the girl, the eyes of the aged prisoner gazed mournfully at Winston out of nests of hair.’

In his book Deacon King Kong, James McBride describes the protagonist as a nature-lover: He was friends with anything that grew: tomatoes, herbs, butter beans, dandelions, beggar’s-lice, wild spur, bracken, wild geranium. There was not a plant that he could not coax out of its hiding place, nor a seed he could not force to the sun, nor an animal he could not summon or sic into action with an easy smile and affable strong hands.

How to show AND tell

Saeed Jones opens the first chapter of his memoir How We Fight for Our Lives with these sentences: The waxy-faced weatherman on Channel 8 said we had been above 90 degrees for ten days in a row. Day after day of my T-shirt sticking to the sweat on my lower back, the smell of insect repellant gone slick with sunscreen, the air droning with the hum of cicadas, dead yellow grass cracking under every footstep, asphalt bubbling on the roads.

In the first sentence above, Jones tells us (via the weatherman) that it has been hot for 10 days in a row. Next, he shows that it was hot with sensory details: The sweaty, sticky T-shirt, the smell of insect repellant and sunscreen, the hum of the cicadas, and the dead yellow grass.

The exception to the rule

Contrary to popular belief, there are times when telling may be better than showing—namely, when describing how a character thinks or feels, otherwise known as internal narrative.

Internal narrative is the private monologue that makes readers feel as though we’re inside a character’s head, privy to thoughts and feelings the character doesn’t necessarily express out loud or through his actions.  Internal narrative is essential because it helps us understand exactly what makes a character tick—his fears, his motivations, his secret dreams. Getting to walk around in a character’s head for a while is one of the best parts about reading, and you’re depriving your reader of that pleasure if you don’t have clear, detailed internal narrative.

Telling is sometimes a better strategy than showing when it comes to writing internal narrative.

Here’s why: Showing relies on a character’s actions.

“He shoved back his chair and slammed his fist against the table.”

This might show us that a character is angry, but we have no idea what he’s actually thinking. Maybe he’s not really angry, but scared. Or maybe he’s secretly thrilled but is pretending to be outraged. We don’t know unless you tell us.

Yes, in nine cases out of ten, it’s infinitely preferable to show John is angry by describing the way his fist hit the table or how hard he slammed the door on his way out of the room. But sometimes, you just need to tell it like it is.