"Show, Don't Tell": It's a Rule for a Reason
A former Editorial Director at Random House, Reedsy's Jim Thomas has edited a number of New York Times Bestsellers over a 20-year career. Authors he's worked with include Jeanne DuPrau (The City of Ember) and Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks).
If you're anything like me, you don't enjoy anything that's reductive. And “Show, Don't Tell” smacks of being reductive. But, over time, I've come to understand that it's a very useful mnemonic if you can dig into it. I find that I write it a lot in my comments — even to professionals: people who have a lot of experience. It's a common thing to miss. Maybe it's because it's so basic, also because there's already so darned much to think about when you are putting together a work of fiction.
Showing is when the prose is defined by particular, precise, descriptive detail. Such detail is almost always observable and visual. I'm wearing black glasses. Of course, you can see that. I have thick eyebrows. I'm wearing a collared shirt, blue or black with stripes. All observable, particular, specific details.
Now, we’ll discuss later whether they're especially relevant. But at least they fall into the category of the sort of thing that you want to - not only pepper your prose with but really build it around. It is the prose. It's specific, observable detail.
‘Showing’ — or what it's characterized by — is dramatizing character interaction. ‘Showing’ is illustrating characters and setting by simply showing what's happening. When done right, with detail that is specific and pertinent to the scenes in question, it functions to draw readers into the narrative. It helps with suspension of disbelief. It engages readers. It leaves room for readers to get involved, in deciding on the significance of a moment or character interaction.
Showing is designing narrative that welcomes readers in, embraces them - and engages them.
These are all things that we want to do, right?
Oh, dreaded telling.
Telling is when the narrative shortcuts that process and delivers conclusions into readers laps.
Often the author might have an idea in mind about a character, or a moment that they want to get across. And they go ahead and tell that to readers by stating it explicitly. Rather than illustrating that idea, and letting readers come to the conclusion - independently participating in the story.
It's easier and quicker than showing, but it keeps readers at a distance because readers aren't able to push past the baldly stated conclusions to engage the story's illustrated world themselves, which is what we want.
Let’s take the metaphor of the movie, which I don't love. It feels dumbed down to me, but it works.
You go to see a movie. There's dialogue, right? That's in common with a book. What book don't have, are the visual elements: facial expressions, gestures. That communication requires no words — it's taken care of by the cameraman and the director, and the actors - who bring it all to life. In fiction, it’s a writer’s job to take care of that. A writer has to communicate all that through words.
Context and content
Context is the simple visuals which help with verisimilitude. Making it believable. Letting you believe the world and forget that you're reading a book. It makes the world real, establishing it through showing colors, interesting settings, clothes, action, and gestures. This is all the information the eye would take in when watching a movie. That's the super visual element, which is critically important.
The content is that one step further. A good movie often makes the viewer work to fully understand what's happening and why, as the events are depicted scene by scene on the screen. Maybe there's a good guy; maybe there's a bad guy. Maybe the motivations and goals are clear; perhaps they’re not. The viewer begins to have their own version of the story. And that is the process of being invited into the process. Prose that shows will do the same thing - in just the way I've described.
Examples of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Alright, enough theory - let's look at some samples. Now you don't have these. So I'll ask you to use your ears. And then we will walk back through them. They're short, and I'll give you a brief idea of what they're about at the outset - so that you have some context.
This one takes place in the country. An 8-year-old girl has convinced her sister and cousin to pretend to get married. The child in question is performing the role of cleric. This is a sample of setting, and also how observable detail can tell you something about the character as well - and draw you in overall.
It was past midsummer, and the plum tree was dropping fruit onto the bricked walkways. Little plummy bombs that fermented in the sun, and got the bees drunk. They buzzed in slow orbits — the worst sort of wedding guest — and terrified the groom.
Sally led the wedding party to the bee free apex of the garden. Where the green man fountain - forever choking on leaves - glugged and fussed and spat water at intervals.
Sally clambered onto the low fountain wall, and turned toward the happy couple - wrestling her expression into solemnity, as she leafed through the weighty tome she carried, just like the priest at Aunt Susie's wedding the week before.
That to me is incredibly visual. The author is making use of all sorts of different strategies here to do that. But chiefly, it's all observable detail. She states - plum tree. There are certain facts. There's a plum tree, there's fruit dropping onto a walkway that is bricked. That tells you a little something. There's the added detail with the bees - and a memorable way of thinking about them, as they get drunk on the fermenting plums.
Let's talk about the power of strong verbs. Which falls into “show, don't tell” as well. Use those verbs to shoulder a lot of the burden.
"Glugged and fussed and spat… Sally clamored onto the low fountain wall..."
I just love the “clambered” here, and the way it's used is perfect. And doesn't it tell you something about the character? I see skinned knees. I see energy and activity.
"...clambered onto the low fountain wall, wrestling her expression into solemnity."
Now, let's think about what that would look like if the author were telling. “Sally was gleeful. She tried to get serious.” As baldly stated as that, right? Instead, we have observable detail - and that suggests a great deal.
“Wrestling her expression into solemnity.”
It's as if you're standing there watching yourself.
Here’s another example that’s also about setting:
I could see my whole world from up here. Our house looked like a giant wooden bird, that had crashed into the hillside. My dad had built it with his own hands, before I was born. He says our house is "in harmony with nature." I say it's weird to have a closet hacked from limestone, and a tiny trickle of a stream, cutting right through the middle of our kitchen during the rainy season.
Well, another incredible visual paragraph there. Let's look at metaphor:
“Our house looked like a giant wooden bird, that had crashed into the hillside.”
Now that's not specific with any particular detail, and yet, it gives you a pretty strong visual. My visual is probably different to yours but the idea comes across. I just have been speaking about “telling” as putting idea in front of particular detail. This is an idea. Metaphor communicates idea, but it does it in a way that avoids that pitfall of telling. Because of the magic of metaphor.
And metaphors really are. When done right, they're just a little piece of magic.
This excerpt tells you something about the character:
“He says our house is "in harmony with nature"”
She doesn't really like it.
“I say it's weird to have a closet hacked”
Hacked. There's another great verb that tells you a lot.
"And a tiny trickle of a stream, cutting right through the middle of our kitchen."
Boy, it tells you a lot about this girl and her life.
Showing when establishing setting is fairly obvious. Of course, you're trying to describe it using observable details. Applying it to a character is taking it one step farther. These next ones take place in the country, in the past. The character is a young woman on a dirt road, and she has come upon a crew who's working on a big pit on the road.
Sally walked up beside a ruddy young man, who was leaning on his shovel, and chewing a blade of grass.
This member of the work crew:
"Ruddy young man leaning on his shovel, chewing a blade of grass."
The author did not choose to tell us what he's wearing. Probably because at this point in the story, we have a certain idea about the world in which the story's taking place - the context, the setting. We fill in those details. We don't need to hear about them. The clothing is not pertinent to how this character's going to interact with the point of view character. We don't need them. It's not useful.
What is useful, is that he's ruddy. That gives us a basic idea of what he's about. He works in the sun, doing physical labor. Maybe something else about his temperament. He’s leaning on his shovel — so he's taking a break
“...chewing a blade of grass.”
He took the time to reach down, and chew a blade of grass. So the guy's taking a break. Maybe beyond that, he’s a layabout. Maybe he's not really working very hard at all, even when he is working. That turns out to be the case. All implicit, suggested, introduced by the particular details that the author has chosen to describe this character, and bring him to life - so you can see him.
Okay, about that same character - a little later on.
The lad, scarcely older than Sally, flicked a glance at her and rubbed his freckled nose. "We dug this ourselves," he drawled. "It's a latrine."
Okay. So now we know a little more. Look at "flicked" - there's a verb - that tells you something about him. There's a real energy in that word.
"We dug this ourselves," he drawled. It's a latrine."
It's obviously not a latrine — he's making a joke. And I'm a person who does not encourage the use of words like “drawled”, in general. I'm a guy who sticks with "said." You want those to drop away. “Said” and “asked” — that's pretty much it. But of course you can break the rules. He “drawled,” and that tells you a great deal. It's perfect and it just fits very well.
One more about character. This takes place in the same world, with the same character — but a different moment later on. The protagonist is having an interview with another woman.
“Are you indeed,” said the woman, pausing to push up her spectacles. She was squarely built, with a snub nose and a blonde braid wrapped around her head.
So there's a metaphor of the language again.
"She was squarely built."
She's not literally a square. She's not literally shaped like a square. But she is squarely built. Metaphorical language is telling you a lot about visual information, and also about the character herself.
“...a snub nose.”
Not a particularly interesting - particular or unique detail. A snub nose is very common. But here in this context, with this character — it probably means she's got some attitude. She's a fighter. Now, interestingly, there’s this throwaway detail:
"... and a blonde braid wrapped around her head."
That doesn't tell you much at all. It could easily come out of it. It doesn't do a lot of damage, but it's relatively throwaway.
Finally, our last category: action. Action's important. Like describing a scene or a setting, describing action should come fairly naturally to us.
Sally didn't fall. She floated down, her arms stretched out like wings that didn't flap. Her feet touched the ground as lightly as a pair of feathers. She turned to me, smiled - and floated right back to the top of the wall. Her arms still spread. Which made her look like Magneto sailing across the sky in an X-Men movie.
I’m not a big fan of contemporary references in a book. They tend to date them. But here, the author uses them throughout the book, and uses them successfully. The point being, it's very visual language. You can see the character's gestures. You have no question about what's happening. You can see it happening as if in front of your eyes. This is what “showing” language does. As I’ve said before: it brings a story to life, and hopefully draws the reader in.
Examples of “Telling”
Telling is interesting. It's always interesting to look at the negative. Here are a few lines:
In the mountains, there was a house built into the side of a cliff. It wasn't quite invisible, but it was close. No casual observer would ever catch a glimpse. It blended so perfectly into the face of the rocks around it.
This is an example of where “telling” is communicating an idea.
What's the idea?
"The house is nearly invisible; it blends with the rocks around it."
So we've got the idea, and in fact, that's exactly what's on the paper. My recommendation to the author would be to do everything and anything but say "invisible," and "blended so perfectly with the rocks around it." Don't say those words — don't use them. Do everything to communicate those ideas without saying it and in so doing, the author will describe and show how it appears if you were standing there and looking at it with your eyes.
There's a distinction here: the idea of it being invisible and blending in with the rocks. That's an idea. Show that idea by describing what it actually looks like if you were right there, looking at it.
The author's taken a shortcut. Let me just go ahead and tell you what I mean, rather than show it to you.
"Hey, Suzie." The voice she spoke with was inviting.
It's relatively harmless. However, if you stack enough of those together, page after page, readers are just not going to be entering the story. They're going to be held at a certain distance, and you don't want that. If you want them to keep reading, you want to pull them in.
"The voice she spoke with was inviting."
I get the idea. But what does it look like, what does it sound like? It's hard to describe an “inviting” voice. That's a very challenging thing to do. A writer uses other tools. Maybe there has been a sequence of lines of dialogue that show that the character is being inviting. So when this line finally comes around, the reader is already hearing an inviting tone. You use the setting, use other angles to get this idea across.
Last one, this is my favorite.
This seemed like a natural place to balk. Sally went stiff-legged like her dog, Rex, when it rained — refusing to go one step further.
You’re thinking to yourself, “Jim, c’mon. Really? Where’s the problem in this line?”
“Refusing to go one step further” is translating. It’s beautifully shown at the start of the extract — then that last clause translates what’s gone before and says “here’s what that means.” Just delete it.
Where should "telling" be used?
In chapter one and two, you might do some flat-out telling. Whether it's a first person narrative or in the third person, when the narrator comes in a says, “here’s something about this world,” or “here’s something about their past,” it feels appropriate. In fact, it's pretty efficient.
Say you’re on page 100. John has to tell Betsy about something that happened on page 30. Readers don’t want to hear John tell her about it, so this is a place where the narrator says, “John told Betsy all about what happened on page 30.”
If you have a strong narrative voice
If you’re writing in the first person point of view or if the narrator is a strong character within the story — they’re going to tell you something.
There are no rules for writing
“Show, Don’t Tell” is a guide. It’s especially useful to remember when you’re creating your first or second draft, you’re going to “tell” and that’s okay. You’re figuring out what your story’s about. You’re tracking, in your own mind, the meaning of the scenes. Your early drafts are almost like a plot map. The real craft is to come back at a later date, in your third or fourth draft, and changing it, fleshing out the world.
Art is expression. We do it because we are driven to express, but it’s also about connections. There’s a balance between the drive the drive to express and the drive to connect. Something like “Show, Don’t Tell” is a way to transmogrify your direct expression into a more common way of approaching material. It will let you connect with your next-door neighbor, with someone who is older or younger, or lives across the world. You can find common ground with “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Do you find it natural to show, rather than tell — or is it a habit you struggle to shake? If you have any other questions on this topic, please feel free to post them in the comments below and we'll try to make sure Jim sees them. Visit Jim Thomas' Reedsy profile for more!