Writing Tips: Show, Don’t Tell

writing tips show dont tell

Show, don’t tell — what does that mean?

The first time I heard the advice “Show, don’t tell,” I was young and it confused me.

Show what? Isn’t writing all about telling a story?

At the time, I shrugged it off as some kind of mysterious double-talk, but the phrase kept popping up: show, don’t tell.

It rolled off my teachers’ tongues. I spotted it in books and articles on the craft of writing. A couple of times, it appeared in red on my papers with an arrow pointing to a specific sentence or paragraph. Then, I took a poetry class and had a big aha moment where show, don’t tell became abundantly clear.

In poetry studies, we talk a lot about imagery. This poem has vivid imagery. What a great image! The images in the first stanza don’t go with the images in the second stanza. This kind of talk didn’t make sense to me either. Images in poems? We’re supposed to be writing, not drawing!

The irony, of course, is that my writing was packed with imagery and I was more prone to showing than telling. Nevertheless, the phrasing of these writing tips perplexed me.


Since then, I’ve worked with plenty of other young and new writers who have expressed embarrassment at having to admit they’re not sure what show, don’t tell means.

Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell is often doled out as writing advice, and it frequently appears on lists of writing tips. It even has its own Wikipedia page! Along with the advice write what you know and know your audience, it’s one of those writing-related adages that deserves some explanation because it seems counter-intuitive and raises a bunch of questions.

Yet it’s actually a simple concept. Ironically, the best way to explain it is to show, rather than tell, someone what it means, and I don’t think anybody’s done that better than Anton Checkhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
– Anton Chekhov (source: Goodreads)

Oh, I Get It

I once heard a lecturer give a talk about love, and he made a good point: it’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you have to show people that you love them through your actions.

We can apply the same concept to writing.

You can tell your readers that two characters met and were instantly attracted to each other, or you could show the characters meeting, making eye contact, and checking each other out. He gulps, she bats her eyelashes, and readers get the picture.

When you show, you’re using words to create a scene that readers instantly visualize. Instead of intellectually registering what you’re telling them, they fully imagine what you’re showing them.

We can turn Checkhov’s explanation into a writing exercise in which we show, don’t tell readers our ideas:

Tell Show
Kate was tired. Kate rubbed her eyes and willed herself to keep them open.
It was early spring. New buds were pushing through the frost.
Charlie was blind. Charlie wore dark glasses and was accompanied by a seeing-eye dog.
Sheena is a punk rocker. Sheena has three piercings in her face and wears her hair in a purple mohawk.
James was the captain. “At ease,” James called out before relaxing into the Captain’s chair.

Now you try it. Think of some simple ideas that you could show readers instead of telling them. Feel free to share them in the comments.

Are there any writing tips that you hear frequently but don’t quite grasp? Share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment, and make sure when you’re writing, you show, don’t tell.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

28 Responses to “Writing Tips: Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. I couldn’t stop Hoovering up the scraps of Melissa’s perfect ideas from the electronic floor of her blog. She had me at “Show.” When she came to the part about integrating the essential elements of poetry with my prose, my mouth drew up like a baby’s smile in front of his favorite mirrored toy. “She gets it,” repeated the little man in my head. She understands the secrets of my short story universe, where less is more. I love her more than any blogger can. You see, Melissa is my literary lover from another mother, a paragon of poesy and prose. Like a Smoky Mountain Plott Hound, I salivate over the microscent of her every utterance, adrift on the Appalachian autumn breeze as it rustles the hickories. We speak the same language, Melissa and me. We show … and don’t ever tell.

  2. Tim LaBarge says:

    Great advice, Melissa. I’ve struggled with understanding this concept in my head in the past. You did an extraordinary job laying it out clearly for me. If I ever get confused again I can always just swing back by this post be good to go. I don’t really have anything to add to it, because I think you covered everything! Nice post…

  3. Ty Unglebower says:

    This is a fine article, and I don’t mean to nitpick, but to me it seems that the chart you are using at the end of the piece has labeled the “show” parts as the “tell” parts and vice-verca. Unless I am not viewing the chart correctly. I thought I should at least point that out.

  4. Stephen says:

    Excellent article with first class advice.

    You’ve made the most difficult part quite simple.

    • Thanks Stephen. I’ve thought about addressing this (and other, similar writing advice) but felt that it’s such a common tip — what could I possibly add? Then, I realized that the reason it’s common advice is because it’s good advice and a lot of people don’t quite get it, so I attempted to explain it and make it easy.

  5. Bill Polm says:

    Excellent advice and reminder, Melissa.
    I can never get enough examples of “showing.” It’s so easy to tell and so challenging to show and do it well, without cliches.

    • I find that I do a lot of telling when I write rough drafts and outlines. It works out well because I can slow down and focus on showing when I’m shaping and revising the poems and stories that I’m working on. Thanks Bill!

  6. Marlon says:

    Aw yes, one of the first few things I learned in Creative Writing class. Thanks for the reminder. That chart reaffirmed that I’ve been doing it right. I don’t know why, but I felt like I was over writing when I took the time to explain the physical cues that expressed a character’s emotion, but that’s what I was supposed to be doing after all lol.

    I got confused. Probably because I’ve been reading Twilight (due to a challenge my friends gave me)*, and Stephanie Meyer does a lot of telling instead of showing. And although the book reads at a good pace, it sometimes slows down due to telling instead of showing. Just one of the many critiques I’ll have for it when I release a proper review.

    *Here’s a video of my fake review of Twilight presenting the challenge of reading it for educational purposes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDxcmctUXNM [warning: contains foul language]

    I’d appreciate your opinion on that if you so choose to watch it, Melissa, or anyone else on here who frequent the comment sections :D

    • I do think showing can be overdone. It’s rare, but I’ve worked with writers who gloss over key elements and then spend a lot of time showing less important elements, so we have be discerning in how we apply this writing concept. But for the most part, I think the world needs more showing and less telling ;) Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marlon.

  7. Beverley Sallee says:

    Oh, I will be ever so grateful for your splendid explanation of Show, Don’t Tell in the wonderful, colorful world of writing! Makes my heart go back to the vivid imagination of the classic Anne (remember, it’s Ann with an “e”) of Green Gables. Anne could really show a story! Thanks!

    • I read many of the Anne books when I was a kid. That was a long time ago, and I must confess that I don’t remember the details of those stories, but I do remember that I enjoyed them. I guess I was more of a “Little House,” reader (because I read those books over and over!). I wouldn’t mind revisiting all those books from my childhood. So many books, so little time!

  8. Kelvin Kao says:

    You got some really good examples here!

    As someone that wrote for stage in college, I really took this to heart. Since I did get to watch what I wrote read or performed out loud by other people, I got immediate feedback on what came across and what did not. That really reinforced the importance of “show, don’t tell” in my mind. It was interesting to see the idea sink in gradually for new writers that joined the group as they got more and more used to (and aware of) the format. Yes, I still cringe a little bit when I see “Derek thought to himself for a little bit, and realized that he had said this very same thing in the previous scene”.

    • Thanks Kelvin. Your stage and performance experience always brings a unique perspective to the writing concepts that I discuss here. For those of us who don’t write for the stage or screen, it’s great insight. I hadn’t thought about how showing instead of telling would manifest in a live performance.

  9. Susan @ 2KoP says:

    I’ve always loved that Chekov quote. I think of it whenever my writing gets too “talky”.

  10. haley brown says:

    what would be show writing for ”The cheeseburger is delicious.” ? help please!!

    • Well, it all depends on context. If this is dialogue and a character is telling another character how good the cheeseburger is, then it’s fine the way it is. If the fact that the cheeseburger is delicious is of great importance to the story and you want to show the reader that it’s a delicious cheeseburger, you might want to do something like this:

      As he bit into the cheeseburger, his eyes rolled back in delight. He chewed slowly, savoring the taste, oblivious to the grease trickling down his chin.

  11. Ibrahim Farah says:

    This was a great piece, it was very helpful. I did not really understand the show not tell quote but now you have made it very clear and I thank you very much for that! Also the quote was great!! I have had a lot of inspiration for writing because of anime I’ve watched and manga I’ve read. When I see a great character when I’m either reading or watching, I want to create my own story and my own characters and immerse readers into my novel. I’m not sure if I should take a BA in Eng Lit and CW, what sort of things would I be able to do with the degree? & does it really help your writing?

    Thank you
    Ibrahim

    • Thanks Ibrahim. Earning a BA in English and creative writing definitely helped my writing. I think each student will have a difference experience, but for me, developing a habit of writing and being surrounded by other writers was a priceless experience. There are many jobs that seek employees with a degree, regardless of major. An English degree is common among teachers, but if you study creative writing, it can also be useful in any field where writing skills are valuable: technical or medical writing, game scripting, editing, and various office jobs. Good luck to you!

  12. Numanu Abubakar says:

    This is a superb post!

    There is something that always baffles me as a writer too, that is the issue of ‘Know your audience’ as you(Melissa) have also mentioned on your post. I don’t really think that you(as a writer) have to think the way your readers or audience read your work. Because many at times, we find lazy heads using good books to portray as though they are boring books, or some times it is the other way round.
    So, I feel considering your reader is not suppose to be in your frame picture when writing.

    Anyway, it is just my little observation and experience as a developing writer, if somethings are to be corrected for me please help…

    • Hi Numanu. While I respect your opinion, I would have to disagree. I believe writing, at its heart, is a form of communication. As writers, our job is to communicate with readers. Whether we’re communicating ideas, information, or stories, the burden is on us to make sure that we are communicating clearly and effectively. Many writers believe in placing the burden on the reader; they don’t think it’s our job to communicate clearly–they think it’s the reader’s job to parse our words and figure out what we’re trying to say. I just happen to disagree with that approach for myself and my readers. I want my readers to immerse themselves in what I’m saying instead of getting hung up on dissecting my sentences and paragraphs.

      But knowing your audience is not merely about communicating clearly. Let’s say you write science fiction. It’s important to understand what readers of that genre expect and want. If you write marketing copy, it’s important to understand what customers are looking for. If you write a blog post, it’s important to understand what your subscribers want to know or learn. Knowing your audience is also about readers being your customers and delivering what they need.

  13. Logan Mathis says:

    awesome post! Show vs tell is the classic rule of thumb and should never be ignored. Whenever I feel like I am doing excessive telling, I will stop what I and doing and do an exercise on showing. It helps tremendously. I think the problem people have after that is knowing when to show and when to tell. Too much of either will ruin the pace in my opinion.

    • You make a good point, Logan: it is important to know when to show and when to tell. While most writers lean toward telling when they should be showing, I have on many occasions in my editing work come across authors who write out full scenes showing action and dialogue that would be better summed up in a single sentence. We need to be cognizant of whether the reader wants or needs to sit through scenes like those and always ask whether each scene is essential to the story.

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