Show, Don't Tell: It's a Rule For a Reason
Option 1: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.
Option 2: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. His forehead was still warm from his mother’s goodnight kiss, yet he felt totally alone. As he snuggled deeper under the covers, his imagination ran wild with all of the unknown things that could be lurking in the dark.
If you haven’t guessed yet, this article is all about “Show, Don’t Tell.”
As the above “show, don’t tell” example illustrates, “showing” is when readers are allowed to connect the dots and deduce the elements of a story by themselves. “Telling” is when readers are handed information.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. To get into the nitty-gritty of this storytelling (or should we say storyshowing) rule, we’ve teamed with Jim Thomas, a professional editor with over 20 years of experience. Jim hosted a Reedsy Live session on the topic and much of our article comes from that advice.
Show, Don’t Tell: What’s the Difference?
Let’s start with some quick definitions. According to Jim, the difference between showing and telling is the difference between leading a horse to water and forcing it to drink:
“Showing is when the prose is defined by particular, precise, descriptive detail. It’s the kind of thing you want to not only pepper your prose with, but really build it around.
Showing is dramatizing character interaction. Showing is developing characters and setting by simply illustrating 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 engages readers by encouraging the suspension of disbelief and leaving room for them to get involved by 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?
Telling, on the other hand, delivers conclusions straight into the reader’s lap. Rather than illustrating an idea, the author states it explicitly.
It’s quicker than showing, but it keeps readers at a distance because they aren’t allowed to come to their own conclusions.”
Alright, enough theory. Let's get an idea of how to actually use this rule to create engaging writing with some “show, don’t tell” examples!
How to Show, Not Tell
1) Create a sense of setting
Weaving sensory details and actions into a scene is a powerful way to give your story a real sense of place. In this pastoral “show, don’t tell” example provided by Jim, an 8-year-old girl has convinced her sister and cousin to pretend to get married.
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.
Setting is mostly a visual element of storytelling. The above passage makes the setting real through…
- Sensory details: “plummy bombs that fermented in the sun,” “buzzed in slow orbits”
- Motion: “choking on leaves,” “glugged and fussed and spat,” “clambered onto the low fountain wall,” “wrestling her expression”
The atmosphere is light and whimsical and allows the reader to perceive the setting through a child’s eyes. Animals (the bees) and inanimate objects (the fountain) are turned into characters that populate the scene, furthering the atmosphere of childlike wonder.
If we only wanted to get the plot points across, we could easily just write: “It was a late summer’s evening. Sally was eager to lose the bees disrupting the wedding ceremony she intended to host.”
While this effectively tells the same story, the passage loses its visceral sense of setting. Without its unique observable details, it becomes rather generic.
2) Use dialogue to show more than just what’s being said
To develop characters and illustrate vivid relationships, write dialogue that allows readers to deduce more than what’s being said on the surface. Take these opening lines from Charlotte’s Web...
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."
From this brief conversation, E.B. White demonstrates characterizations that are crucial to the plot: Fern and her mother’s opposing attitudes to the creatures on the farm. Straight off the bat, we are shown Fern’s empathy towards the animals, which is essential to her being able to “hear” them. The theme of death is also set up, which carries on throughout the novel. White could have written this out but from the dialogue, we see Fern’s tenacity and her mother’s very matter-of-fact attitude.
3) Specificity is your friend
Every novel has a theme: a universal concept that underlies the story. Themes are often vague ideas such as “power” or “loyalty” — but your specific use of prose can help define it, making your writing all the richer.
Here’s a “show, don’t tell” example from Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel...
“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.”
In this passage, a general idea — loneliness — is illustrated with specific details. Mandel shows the reader thinking desperately about human connection. Her use of language — “reached far enough,” “cast their thoughts outward” — gives us an idea of how vast the character’s isolation is, as though she is standing alone in a vast empty desert.
This gives us a better insight into the character and the world of the story than if we were instead told: “She longed desperately for human connection.”
4) Use well-thought out adjectives and metaphors
Let’s take a look at two more “show, don’t tell” examples from Jim Thomas.
Adjectives can be used to show
Sally walked up beside a ruddy young man who had been working on a pit in the road. He was leaning on his shovel, and chewing a blade of grass. 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."
Showing doesn’t always need to involve long chunks of prose. Sometimes, a carefully placed adjective is all you need. Consider the term “ruddy” in the above passage. This alone gives us quite a bit to imagine about the man: maybe he works in the sun, perhaps he’s been doing physical labor all his life, could be that he’s weathered and looks older than is.
We don’t currently know these things as facts, notes Jim Thomas. At this point, it’s “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.”
Metaphors can be used to show
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.
If someone said, “I live in an oddly-shaped wooden house on a hill,” it’s likely you would be able to easily picture it. But through the use of metaphor, Jim allows us to conjure in our minds a scene of a giant wooden bird literally crashing into a hill and settling there as a house. The language creates action and movement in our mind while leaving us with an image of the setting.
More “Show, Don’t Tell” Examples
To break it down into brass tacks, here are a few examples of this rule in action. We've written each passage twice: once where it simply tells the reader what it's trying to convey, and then again as it shows them.
1.) Tell: "The streets were filled with activity."
Show: "I could barely hear the construction over the sound of the voices calling out to me on all sides — from the fresh market stands, the sweaty bodegas, the steam-filled hot dog carts. But the operative word is 'barely.'"
The first sentence doesn't bring to mind any specific street or activity. The second sentence shows the boisterous scene so clearly that the reader practically walks away with a headache.
2.) Tell: The entire school hates me.
Show: "'The entire school hates me,' I told her. She laughed, but I'm sure it's easy to laugh when you can make it through a day without catching an angry glance from your classmates, or hearing giggles in the hallway as you pass by, or sensing a mysterious smell coming from your locker as you near it."
If you told your real-life friend the whole school hated you, she could offer you comfort or reassurance because she knew the whole story. Your readers, however, will not — so you need to show them, or else an assertion like that simply won't ring true.
3.) Tell: "I love fall."
Show: "When the air turns crisp and the orange leaves on the trees are replaced by orange pumpkins all over my neighbor's porch, the cool breeze brushes the scent of rotting foliage and tapped maple trees under my nose. It smells nice. It smells like home."
The specific details in the latter passage convey the narrator's feelings just as directly as in the former, while also hinting at the writer's personality and personal history.
"Show, Don't Tell" Examples in Popular Novels
There are likely countless of "show, don't tell" examples across your favorite author's body of work as well. Chekhov once said to prospective writers, "Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass." Here are some more instances that show he was right.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Even the smallest details can be used right to show something important about a novel's world. In this "show, don't tell" example from Margaret Atwood's dystopian tale, the titular Handmaids all contain the prefix Of-: Offred, Ofglen, etc. The significance of this is never explained in the book proper, but the vigilant reader might notice the significance of these names. Offred is the Handmaid "of Fred," her male master, conveying just how deep the oppressive misogyny of Atwood's world runs.
Ra by Sam Hughes
A sci-fi novel written during NaNoWriMo back in 2010, Sam Hughes' Ra wastes no time in showing its hero's magical skills... but naturally (this is a "show, don't tell" example, after all) without telling. At the story's beginning, Laura Ferno is surrounded by a group of thugs in an alley. She proceeds to dispatch them easily with the magical talents she picked up in her "Thaumic Engineering" courses at university. A scene like this at the onset of a novel can show the abilities of the protagonist, as well as the limits (or lack thereof) of the world.
Is telling ever acceptable?
Of course, telling is a necessary part of novel-writing. It might be a narrative shortcut, but sometimes shortcuts are necessary in order to get the story where it needs to go without exhausting the readers or hindering the pacing. According to Jim, there are several instances where telling is the way to go. Here are a few:
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 and 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.”
For even more "show, don’t tell” examples that illustrate what this important practice is all about, check out Jim’s Reedsy Live session on the topic below!
There are no rules for writing
While the "Show, Don't Tell" is one of the most widely revered rules in storytelling, Jim also cautions writers to remember that, in the arts, rules are more like friendly suggestions.
“‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is a guide. This is 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 is 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 to express and the drive to connect. Something like “Show, Don’t Tell” is a way to transform 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? Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments below!