Show, Don't Tell: How to Master It (With Examples)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most oft-exchanged pieces of advice among writers. But just like “write what you know” and “write every day,” it can be difficult to follow — especially if you don’t really know what it means!
Luckily, we’re here to show you (see what we did there?) exactly what this particular creative adage entails. This post will teach you how to show rather than tell, explain the various benefits of “showing” in writing, and provide plenty of helpful examples from literature.
Show, don’t tell: what does it mean?
When we say show, don’t tell, we’re talking about a technique writers use to immerse readers in a story. They do this by putting us in the character’s shoes, describing what they see, feel, and think in the way that character would actually experience it. In short, showing illustrates, while telling merely states. Chekhov said of this tactic, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."
Here’s a quick example of showing versus telling:
Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. His forehead was still warm from her kiss, yet he felt completely alone. As he huddled under the covers, his imagination ran wild with all the unknown things that could be lurking in the shadows.
Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.
In the “showing” example, rather than merely saying that Michael is afraid of the dark, we’ve put him in a situation where his experience of that fear takes center stage. He sees the light being switched off. He feels his body tensing, as well as his mother’s lingering kiss. Finally, he thinks of himself as alone, and begins to imagine what might be hiding there in the darkness.
This kind of showing gives the reader the opportunity to deduce the same information they’d get from the “telling” example, but in a much more compelling way. Telling simply hands the reader information, robbing them of the intrigue and vivid imagery they get with showing.
What else does showing achieve?
Showing also helps develop characters in lieu of just listing their traits. For instance, rather than outright saying “Gina was selfish and immature,” you could show readers this side of her by writing a scene where she whines about how everyone forgot her half-birthday. Or if you have a character who’s extremely determined, show her actually persisting through something — don’t just say “she was persistent.”
Overall, when done right, showing draws readers into the narrative with truly immersive description. It contributes to story development, but also leaves certain things up to readers' interpretation, which is much more interesting than making everything explicit. Telling might be quicker, and it’s certainly necessary to have some telling in every story (more on that later), but showing should almost always be your prime strategy.
All right, that’s enough theory for now! Let’s talk about how you can show, not tell, in your own work. Here are five key tips on how to show rather than tell in a story, complete with examples.
How to show, not tell
1) Use strong details, but don’t overdo it
Strong, vivid details are crucial to the process of showing. However, that doesn’t mean you should include too many details, especially those that are overly embellished. This kind of excessively ornate language can be just as bad as “telling” language that’s too basic, as it may cause the reader to lose interest in your super-dense prose.
Strike the right balance by alternating between simple and complex sentences and ideas, and different types of sensory detail, so the reader doesn’t get overloaded on any one type.
Example: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Nick awakens to the sound of Amy cooking)
My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shufﬂing and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward the ﬁnale.
This passage starts off fairly simple, building up to the grand metaphor of the kitchen noises as a “culinary orchestra.” It’s also noteworthy for its use of onomatopoeia, which is a great tactic for “showing” sound. However, this passage isn’t just what Nick hears: it’s also what he feels (“my morning breath warmed the pillow”) and thinks (“I changed the subject in my mind”). The intimate description pulls the reader in, and the rhythm (quite literally!) of the passage keeps them engaged.
2) Create a sense of setting
One of the best ways to show rather than tell is to create a sense of setting. You can do this by writing about how characters perceive and interact with their surroundings, weaving plenty of sensory details and occasional action into the scene. Focusing on setting is a particularly good method of lending immediacy to your story, as the reader should be able to imagine themselves in that very setting.
Example: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (Oliver’s first moments in London)
A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses… Oliver was just considering whether he hadn't better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill.
Oliver’s initial impression of London hits us like a train: you can almost taste the filthy air and hear the children screaming for yourself. And if London’s extreme depravity wasn’t already evident enough from the description, you can tell from Oliver’s reaction that it must be pretty bad — for context, he’s just walked 30+ miles to reach London, and this is the first thing that’s really fazed him.
Of course, Dickens might have just written, “Oliver reached London. It was dirty and crowded.” But while this more or less summarizes the above passage, it completely loses the visceral sense of setting and Oliver’s feelings toward that setting. Without these details, the description would be totally generic.
3) Employ dialogue strategically
In addition to setting, you can also use dialogue to demonstrate story elements beyond the surface conversation. This dialogue might suggest something that’s happening in the plot, or an important feature about a character — or, in the case of the following example, both.
Example: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (Fern’s conversation with her mother)
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother.
"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?"
From this brief conversation, E.B. White clearly characterizes Fern and sets the central plot in motion. After realizing that her father is about to kill a runt pig, Fern steps up to save Wilbur (as she’ll soon christen him), who will become the main character of the story. This passage also introduces the themes of empathy toward animals and the prospect of death, which pervade the rest of the book. White could have simply written “Fern cared a lot about animals,” but from the dialogue, we see it for ourselves — plus we get a sense of how the plot might unfold from here.
4) Convey big ideas with specific prose
Every novel has a theme: a universal concept that underlies the story (and most novels have more than one!). Themes often involve big ideas such as power or loyalty — but using more specific prose can show these themes in a digestible yet subtle way. This is a more complex application of “showing,” but it works very well when done right.
Example: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Kirsten contemplates loneliness)
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, Mandel represents the theme of loneliness using specific details: she shows the character thinking desperately about human connection. Her use of language — “reached far enough,” “cast their thoughts outward” — illustrates how extreme the character’s isolation is. This also ties into the post-apocalyptic novel’s theme of societal breakdown, which naturally results in isolation. Overall, this description gives us a much better idea of the character of Kirsten and the world of the Station Eleven than if Mandel wrote, “She wished that she weren’t so lonely.”
5) Use figurative language thoughtfully
This one ties back into tip #1 — again, while you want your details to be strong and specific, you don’t want them to come across as ostentatious. So whenever you use similes, metaphors, or other literary devices, make sure they’re actually effective. Nothing detracts from a story more than nonsensical figurative language.
Example: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Montag hears Beatty’s voice in his head)
He could hear Beatty's voice. “Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh? Light the third page from the second and so on, chainsmoking, chapter by chapter, all the silly things the words mean, all the false promises, all the second-hand notions and time-worn philosophies.”
This excellent metaphor (taken from our list of 97 metaphors in literature and pop culture) compares the pages of burnt books to “black butterflies”: an eerie image that, fittingly enough, burns itself into our brains. Though no book-burning actually occurs at this moment (Montag is merely imagining it), the reader can still vividly see what it would look like. We shudder at the contrast between the innocent, petal-like pages and the monstrous, destructive fire. Indeed, this is the pinnacle of showing — it really drives home how powerful figurative language can be.
More examples of “show, don’t tell”
To break down this technique even further, here are a few additional examples of authors showing rather than telling in their writing. If you want to analyze even more examples, just crack open the nearest novel! Pretty much every work of fiction involves showing, and observing the tactics of successful authors is one of the best ways to learn for yourself.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.
Why it works: This passage uses various senses (smell, touch, and sound) to recreate the atmosphere of Offred’s old garden, romanticizing the act of gardening to show that she misses those days. It also connects that peaceful past time to the present day, implying that many people no longer feel at peace, including the Commander’s Wife.
It by Stephen King
Now here he was, chasing his boat down the left of Witcham Street. He was running fast but the water was running faster and his boat was pulling ahead. He heard a deepening roar and saw that fifty yards farther down the hill the water in the gutter was cascading into a storm drain that was still open. It was a long dark semi-circle cut into the curbing, and as Georgie watched, a stripped branch, its bark as dark and glistening as sealskin, shot into the storm drain’s maw.
Why it works: King renders the fast-running rivulets of a rainy day by having Georgie run alongside them, unable to keep up. Then he sees the storm drain, which King aptly calls a “maw” (a spot-on metaphor), and its threat is heightened by the sound of its “deepening roar” and the fact that it swallows an entire branch. Needless to say, poor Georgie’s boat doesn’t stand a chance.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes that Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leaned against her front gate. What kind of a place was this? That was the thing, you see, you couldn’t be sure.
Why it works: The stream-of-consciousness style here evokes the rushed chaos of moving house. Also, the juxtaposed descriptions of Archie and Clara (him “scrabbling, cursing, blinding, and wilting” while she calmly assesses the situation) show how different they are — a disparity which will only grow over the course of the book.
Is telling ever acceptable?
Of course, sometimes you have no other choice but to do a bit of “telling” in a story. Yes, it’s a narrative shortcut, but sometimes shortcuts are necessary — especially when you’re trying to explain something quickly, with no fanfare or immersive evocation for readers. Writers often “tell” at the beginning of a story to get the exposition across, or after a “big reveal” where certain details just need to be clearly stated. The important thing is balance; as long as you don’t have too much of either telling or showing, you should be fine.
Finally, remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules for writing. If you’re worried that you’re telling too much and not showing enough, but your writing still flows well and intrigues readers, don’t feel obligated to change it! And as Jim Thomas says in the video above: “In the arts, rules are more like friendly suggestions. 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 still figuring out what your story is about.”
So whether you’re more inclined to show or to tell, just know that with practice, you’ll find the exact style that works for you. And when that happens, you’ll show everyone (sorry, we couldn’t resist!) what you’re made of as a writer.
Do you struggle to show, not tell? Leave any questions, concerns, or tips in the comments below!