How to Show, Not Tell: The Complete Writing GuideMay 30, 2021
“The girl was afraid of wild nature, her heart was pounding with every scary noise. But suddenly, her fear disappeared. She touched the ground and felt like her new guardian ”. What is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, this passage doesn't really paint much of a picture. And it fails to make me feel anything as a reader. That's the core problem with
writingthat relies too much on counting. They
tellus that the girl is scared, that the noises are terrifying, and that this place feels like a guardian. However, there isn't much evidence to back up those claims. “Show, don't
tell” is a phrase you've probably heard a lot in the
Author K. M. Weiland best captures the distinction: “Show dramatizes. Telling summarizes”. But it can be difficult to identify damaging instances of storytelling in his own writing. Saying NO is inherently wrong. In fact, all novels are a mixture of telling and
showing. It is not always necessary to "
show" rather than tell. If that were the case, all the stories would be ridiculously long and full of unnecessary description. Narration is useful for quickly conveying the passage of time or presenting important facts to the reader without exaggerating the point. Take a look at the beginning of the children's novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everyone said she was the most disgusting-looking girl ever.
It was also true. She had a small and thin face and a small and thin body, fine light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow and her face was yellow because she was born in India and she had always been sick in one way or another. We are told some information about Mary being a nasty-looking girl who has always been ill. But that claim is immediately backed up by visual evidence of her thin face and hair, along with her sour expression. If someone flags her writing for "saying" too much, that probably means she needs to provide details or a strong narrative voice for the reader to feel something.
Good writing invites the reader to visualize the scene and experience the emotions for themselves rather than being told how to feel. In his TED talk "Clues to a Great Story," Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton proposes the unifying theory of two plus two. He says, “Have the audience put things together. Don't give them four, give them two plus two." Wall-E's opening relies entirely on showing the audience the equation without giving them the answer, and he describes why that approach is effective: “Narration without dialogue. It is the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It is the most inclusive approach you can take.
It confirmed something that I really had a hunch of, which is that the audience really wants to work for their food. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as the storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their food. We are born problem solvers. We are forced to infer and infer, because that's what we do in real life. It is this well-organized absence of information that appeals to us. There's a reason we're all drawn to a baby or puppy. It's not just that they're damn cute; it is because they cannot fully express what they are thinking and what their intentions are.
And it's like a magnet. We cannot stop wanting to
completethe sentence and
completeit.” The same principle applies to other non-visual storytelling modes. The key to getting your audience interested in fiction is to hint at your meaning instead of always pointing it out. Readers love the puzzle-solving and discovery process. Before we dive into some practical strategies, I want to take a two-minute detour to explore the origins of "show, don't tell" as a writing mantra, since it's not often spoken. In his 2004 book Creative Writing and the New Humanities, scholar Paul Dawson describes how the novel was transformed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries with the rise of realism as a literary movement.
Realism aims to tell the stories of ordinary people with complete honesty instead of idealizing them. Dawson notes: "From Flaubert onward, the trajectory of the novel is often seen as the development of techniques for impersonalizing the narrator in order to erase the presence of the implied author and dramatize the action as much as possible." Literary critic Percy Lubbock praised those 19th-century realists for giving the novel a definite aesthetic, and it is his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction that likely popularized the idea of "show versus tell." He says: "...the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be displayed in such a way as to tell itself." Authors such as Virginia Woolf praised and criticized to Lubbock for confining the craft of novel writing to a formal system.
His ideas were incredibly influential in the literary world. Basically, the intent of this advice is to make the author an invisible narrator and avoid breaking the reader's immersion in the story. Janice Hardy makes a similar observation in her 2016 Understanding Show writing
guide, Don't Tell: "A common rule of thumb: As long as it sounds like the character is thinking about it, you're usually fine. But as soon as it sounds like they're If the author meddled in to explain things, he probably fell for the storytelling.” If you want readers to experience the emotions of the story on a visceral level, you need to know when to show them.
In general, moments involving emotions, opinions, or sensations are better shown than told. Here are six guiding principles for a stronger "show." Number one: use evidence to support your claims. If a narrator says that her husband is a good-hearted person, or if the protagonist believes that her best friend is guilty of murder, what led them to that conclusion? Give the reader the same evidence that the character uses when it comes to assumptions or opinions. Author Chuck Palahniuk advises banning "thinking" verbs like "think," "know," "understand," "realize," "believe," "want," "remember," and "imagine." He talks about “unpacking” scenes so that the reader feels and thinks what the characters feel and think.
He gives this example: Instead of saying, "Adam knew Gwen liked him." You will have to say: “Between classes, Gwen would always lean on her locker when she went to open it. She rolled her eyes and pushed with one foot, leaving a black heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left behind the scent of her perfume. The combination lock would still be hot off her bottom. And at the next break, Gwen would lean there, again." Adds Palahniuk: “Instead of the characters knowing something, now you have to present the details that allow the reader to know them.
Instead of a character wanting something, now you have to describe the thing so that the reader wants it." You can draw readers into the story by presenting evidence, whether it's a visual detail or dialogue, and allowing them to come to their own conclusions about the impression you're trying to create. Number two: Replace the abstract with the concrete. In particular, be careful when directly expressing a character's feelings. Harvey Chapman's Help Writing Novels blog provides an excellent before-and-after example: Tell: "After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby walked home feeling happier than he had ever been in his thirteen years." Showing: “After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby couldn't keep the goofy grin off his face all the way home.
When he got to the front door, he jumped clean over it, he didn't come close to tripping." Chapman further explains why the changes work: "Happiness is an abstract concept and needs to be demonstrated (not shown) in concrete details, like the wide grin and the door hop." Therefore, you can often replace emotions with actions that allow the reader to infer the emotion. Also be wary of descriptions that use opinion-related adjectives, such as "beautiful" or "weird." In a first draft, you might write, "The dark forest felt creepy." Okay, maybe it's strange to the character, but the reader has to feel it too.
I need to convince the reader that it is disturbing to use evidence: "The forest hummed with the cries of long-dead children." That's better, creepy enough. Replace the adjective tags with details that allow the reader to interpret the atmosphere for themselves. A trick to identify when you are in "abstract" territory is to ask yourself a question that Jeff Gerke asks in his book The First 50 Pages: Can the camera see it? Almost every example of "show" contains a detail that can be visualized, though often you'll want to combine those visuals with smell, touch, taste, and sound. Author Jerry Jenkins provides great examples of how to replace abstract emotions with concrete actions on his blog: Cold? do not tell me; show me.
Your character turns up his collar, tightens his scarf, puts his hands in his pockets and turns his face away from the biting wind. Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes may look swollen. His shoulders could sag. Another character might say, “Didn't you sleep last night? You look shot. Another way to think about this "camera" idea is to consider the effect rather than the cause of a particular detail. Take a look at these additional examples from Jerry Jenkins: Say: The temperature dropped and the ice reflected the sun. Showing: Bill's nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.
Counting: Suzie was blind. Showing: Suzie searched for the bench with a white cane. Say: It was late autumn. Showing: Crushed leaves under her feet. In the first example, the cold temperature is the cause of specific effects on the character, namely Bill's nose burning in the frigid air. Rather than being stated directly, the details are shown through how the character interacts with the world around him, like leaves rustling under his feet, making the scene more visual. Number three: Replace vague descriptions with specific sensory details. Above all, showing depends on specificity. Unique sensory details make the feelings and scenes jump off the page.
Author Delilah Dawson talks about invoking the senses to make the world-building seem three-dimensional. In the first sentence draft of hers, she writes: "Aga walked through the market, gaping at the rugs and spice bins." Now, you could have said, "Aga marveled at all the marvelous sights in the market," but instead of using abstract concepts like "marveled" or "wonderful," include the concrete action of Aga gawking at the rugs and jars of spices. But while that creates a mental image, it's not very specific and doesn't invoke any sense beyond sight. In the second draft of it, Dawson writes: “Aga walked through the market as if in a dream.
Spicy cinnamon and rich coffee wafted through the air as she ran her fingers over the silken tassels and through the dusty barrels of golden saffron.” Adding details makes this description feel much more immersive and is unique to this particular story. When showing details, try to go beyond the obvious and expected. For example, a funeral scene will often show everyone dressed in black as it begins to rain, the main character standing with an umbrella in front of his mother's grave. What if you showed details that contrasted with the gloomy environment? If an emotional scene seems too cliché, try changing the setting or the way the characters describe their emotions, as author Gail Carson Levine recommends: “What if, instead of a normal day, it's Christmas Day, in south texas?
Outside drizzle, hello dry air. What if the headstone has something written on it that doesn't make sense to anyone, but her dying mother asked you to engrave it on her headstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Perhaps they will distract their minds from the sadness trying to decipher the strange saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it's different." Number four: avoid relying too much on body language. Many writing tips suggest using body language to imply a character's emotions. Crossed arms can show that someone is angry, while finger tapping can indicate impatience.
Those physical details can be good emotional shorthand. However, it's easy to rely too much on body language as a form of demonstration. In real life, how often do you see someone clench their fists or clench their teeth when they're angry? How often have you done it yourself when you're angry? Common facial expressions and gestures are great for quickly conveying a character's mood, but they rarely evoke an emotional response from the reader. In an article on the Live Write Thrive blog by C.S. Lakin, editor Robin Patchen describes how writers can show emotions through actions and thoughts rather than just bodily sensations.
As she says, “Having a character clench his fists can show us that he's angry, but it doesn't show us the momentum of that anger. Do you feel frustrated, belittled, or jealous?” She gives an amazing before and after example. The firstversion relies heavily on body language: Maria opened her eyes and looked at the clock. Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest. The baby had slept almost eight hours. But little Jane never slept more than four hours at a time. Something must be wrong. No again. Her stomach turned as she remembered the last time one of her children had overslept.
At first glance, it seems that the story is “showing” the character's emotions because her heart and stomach are reacting. But that same lack of subtlety makes the descriptions feel forced and melodramatic. Patchen's second version of this scene moves away from gut reactions and focuses on the character's individual thought process: Mary opened her eyes and squinted at the sunlight streaming in through the open window. She stretched, feeling more relaxed than she had since. . . She sat up and looked at the clock. It was after eight. Little Jane had slept through the night. Stop the first time. Just like Billy.
Mary pushed back the covers and stood up. She grabbed her robe from the back of the chair and put it on. She wouldn't think of Billy. The doctor said it wouldn't happen again. The odds against him were astronomical. Billy was almost six weeks old. Jane was almost two months old. She was different this time. She had to be. The second example feels more "in the moment." Giving a real-time account of the character's thought process and her interactions with the environment can show emotional nuances better than body language. Patchen also uses strong verbs like "flip" and "snatch" to convey a sense of panic and urgency, along with an ellipsis indicating that her thoughts are fading.
Word choice and sentence structure can be a form of demonstration. Robin Patchen ends with this beautiful nugget of wisdom: “Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to actions. As a writer, you can easily show your character's thoughts and actions. Readers are smart enough to infer emotions based on what characters think and do. Very often it seems that the writers are in a hurry. When you have a very emotional scene, slow down. Let us hear your character's every thought. Highlight some details. Show the actions.” If you need help coming up with ideas for how feelings can be manifested, check out The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, which lists a variety of ways you can convey different emotions, from heartbreak to wanderlust.
Number Five: Show emotion through dialogue. Dialogue is a powerful tool for proving a character's feelings or personality to the reader. Instead of saying, “Mary was mad at Bob,” you could have Mary yell at Bob, “Pickle wretch. How dare you!" This is also why many writing tips articles warn against using adverbs. They weaken dialogue because they tell more than they show. In the dialogue above, we can tell Mary's tone just by her words, not mentioning the volume, since he's yelling. I don't need to write "angry yelled" because the word "angry" is telling the reader information that we've already shown.
Similarly, some writers are tempted to "telegraph" the intentions of a character in a conversation, even though the dialogue already shows that information: he tried to be diplomatic. "Please, just listen to what I have to say." "Well, that doesn't matter," he said, changing the subject. "Let's move on." to something else." In this exchange, the author tells the reader what conclusions to draw when he must trust that his readers are smart enough to figure it out for themselves. A revised version might include more images. s and a dialogue tag that conveys a specific tone: She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Please just listen to what I have to say." "Well, that doesn't matter," she whispered. "Let's move on to something else." When writing highly emotional dialogue, it can be helpful in the first draft to pretend you're writing a play or screenplay, as that forces you to focus on conveying emotion through dialogue alone.
Oscar Wilde is known for his snappy dialogue, particularly in his play The Importance of Being Earnest. In the opening scene, a young gentleman named Algernon visits his best friend Jack, who has come to propose to Algernon's cousin. The dialogue conveys the emotions of the scene: ALGERNON: You act like you're already married to her. You're not married to her yet, and I don't think you ever will. JACK: Why the hell do you say that? ALGERNON: Well, first of all, girls never marry the men they flirt with. The girls don't think so. JACK: Oh, that's nonsense! ALGERNON: It's not.
It is a great truth. That explains the extraordinary number of singles one sees everywhere. Second, I do not give my consent. JACK: Your consent! Based solely on the tone of their words, the reader can surmise what the characters are feeling, even though the audience is not told that information directly. You can learn more about writing subtext in dialogue in my video on the topic. Number Six: Filter the observations through the narrative voice. “Show, don't tell” often means delving into the narrative point of view, whether you're filtering the story through the lens of a character or a more distant narrator.
It is about giving details that allow the reader to feel more connected to the character's point of view through what he is experiencing. This closeness can be achieved by making simple statements in a unique way. Reddit user chevron_seven_locked shares some great examples of counting vs. show on the r/write subreddit: he was a rude and inconsiderate man. This is Saying. We know the character is rude and inconsiderate because the writer told us so. "Get out of my way, idiot!" he yelled at the woman who was struggling to get her stroller onto the bus. This is showing.
We can deduce that the character is rude and inconsiderate based on the situation we just read. Say: She was uncomfortable with him. Showing: She stiffened in his embrace. Count: The house was huge. Showing: The whole family of him could live alone in the kitchen. Say: he was hungry. Showing: She almost inhaled the soup. In all of these examples, we learn the same information through Showing, but with more flavor and character. You'll notice that all of these examples involve replacing "was" with a more interesting verb, just like the previous examples. Since "was" and its cousin word "feel" are often followed by an adjective, that can be a flag marking a place where a stronger verb could be used to create that particular image in the reader's head.
You can imagine a stiff woman in a man's embrace, or a kitchen big enough for a family to live in, or someone inhaling soup. This extends to world building, backstory, and info dumps in general. Sometimes authors present information as a dictionary definition rather than a world reference that fits naturally into the story. As Janice Hardy points out: “An easy test for info dumps is to check whether the information is for the benefit of the reader or the character. If it's for the reader, chances are you're throwing it away and it contains prose." The key is to filter the world building or exposition through the point of view character's perspective.
Hardy compares different ways of showing the same scene depending on the character: The nondescript example, with Bob: “Rain was falling through the restaurant window. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes next to him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clock ticked”. A Navy SEAL character: “The rain was pounding against the restaurant window like shots from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, his back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes next to him. He tightened his grip on the envelope with each tick of the clock above him.
New orders. Great." A frightened girl: "Rain covered the window and blurred the outside world. Bobbi hunched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes next to her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn't want to touch it. Let alone open it. He glanced at his watch and sighed. Running out of time." Let your characters' emotions color the way they view their surroundings. The same goes for dialogue that feels like information given for the reader's sake rather than something the character would realistically say. This leads to "How do you know, Bob" situations where one character explains something another character already knows.
Richard: No, did you know that today we are heading to the land of the Giants to offer them the Jewel of Valencia in exchange for joining our quest to save Princess Isabella? Galavant: Yes, we discussed it last night in great detail. There is no need for your clumsy exposition. In these situations, the dialogue is not delivered using the character's voice; instead, it is the author who speaks, which pulls the reader out of the story. Remember that characters have prior knowledge and experience that exists outside of the narrative. Showing in dialogue often means including less detail, as in this example from Janice Hardy: Reader Benefit: “I'll set up a small explosive device to open the door.
We did that when I was deployed to Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL." Character Perk: "Um, Kevin, where did you learn to make bombs?" "The marine." The real purpose behind the advice "show don't tell" is not to claim that all "tell" is bad writing. Telling is often necessary to tie different scenes together, and the amount of narration you use can depend on the genre, which Stewie Writes captures succinctly: “Telling and showing are tools for pacing. They help you focus and immerse the reader in important moments, and quicken the pace of others. What do you want the reader to remember?
Identify what your ideal reader wants. Want a lush and immersive meandering ride? Or a thriller at the speed of light? And as author Alix E. Harrow says, sometimes readers want to be told what's going on, much like listening to a storyteller tell a good story. She writes: “I want a strong narrative voice to move across the stage in a great monologue that explains the whole world to me as if I were five years old. I want the condescending clarity of a fairy tale or myth, which weaves a story together with a series of and then and even.
I want a flat southern voice to come up and say that what happened was..." Harrow specifically champions Micaiah Johnson's sci-fi debut, The Space Between Worlds, as an example of work that turns exposition into something searing and compelling, with narrative tension. The first few pages use a strong first-person voice to draw the reader in: when I was young and the multiverse was just a theory, I was worthless: an addict's dark-haired girl in one of those rooms outside of the walls of Wiley City. that people don't leave or go. But then Adam Bosch, our new Einstein and the founder of the institute that pays me, discovered a way to see other universes.
Of course, humanity couldn't just look We had to go in. We had to touch and taste and take. But the universe said no. Telling is part of what differentiates novels and short stories from movies and TV shows. Fiction writers can bottle pe thoughts and feelings in a way that cannot be fully replicated in another medium. Show is meant to push writers to try harder with their prose and brainstorm specific details that bring the characters and world to life. With that being said, the sentence should be modified to "show, not just tell". As a quick cheat sheet, here are some places you might consider telling or combining telling and showing: • Moments unimportant to the larger narrative (like how a character got from point A to point B) • Routine summaries, passage of the time or repetitive conversations • Some aspects of magical systems or sci-fi world-building (as in the Space Between Worlds excerpt) • Characters' thoughts • Occasional backstory and exposition or (This is usually presented as a broad summary that features along with specific details that show , as in The Secret Garden example.) And here are places where it's usually best to show: • Emotions o In particular, the main character's feelings and assumptions about how they feel other characters. • Sensations o This includes sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. • Thoughts or Words like "done," "thought," and "knew" can mean this, but don't feel like you need to avoid those words entirely.
Just make sure there isn't a more interesting way to put it using concrete evidence. • Attributes or opinion adjectives o Above all in relation to how a character, place or situation makes the protagonist feel. If you make a claim like "He was smart," support it with evidence, like mentioning the time Macgyvered made a key out of dental floss and a putty knife. • Flat Phrasing o This could include overused words or a large number of 'to be' verbs such as 'was'. Show means remove the author asintermediary and let the reader live the story first hand. You can show through specificity, action, dialogue, sensory details, internal thinking, and narrative voice.
Your first draft will often contain more information than demonstration. During reviews, you can review and highlight the parts that need more flavor. Look for places where the emotions or descriptions feel vague. Replace them with specific sensory details and vivid vocabulary. If you want to learn more about telling vs. showing, I highly recommend you pick up Janice Hardy's Understanding Program, Don't Tell. It's a short read that's packed with practical strategies for finding red flags with "tell." As a writing exercise, find a short paragraph or scene from one of her favorite books and replace everything that is shown with a narrative.
Do you remember the passage I shared at the beginning of this video? That's actually from a popular novel, except I rewrote it wrong. Here is the original text, which is an admirable example of showing a character's emotions through her actions and a unique narrative voice. She's from Delila Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing: she Sometimes she'd hear night sounds she didn't know or jump too close to lightning, but every time she stumbled, it was the earth that caught her. Until at last, in some unclaimed moment, heartache seeped like water into sand. It's still there, but deep. Kya placed her hand on the wet, throbbing earth, and the swamp became her mother.
Do you have a hard time showing instead of telling? Share your thoughts with me in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.
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