Show, Don’t Tell (With Examples)
Writers often labor away to get a description exactly as they want it—only to have it returned with, “Don’t tell me, show me,” scrawled in the margin by an editor or writing mentor. In this article, we take a closer look at showing and telling.
May 13, 2021 · 6 Min Read
Introspection and outward action both play an important role in fiction. Action is impactful only when the character’s motives are understood (or at least suspected). Conversely, the internalization of events can only carry weight if there is outward action. However, writers often make the mistake of leaning too heavily on internalization, which leads to too little action and tension.
Show, Don’t Tell Definition and Overview
In its simplest sense, showing describes an outward action or state of being. Telling is when inward, static information colors a description. The master of showing, Ernest Hemingway, once said, “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water.”
Telling plays an important role in writing—you’ll be hard pressed to write an entire novel without it. However, prose can become bland and even tedious when static information takes precedent over showing. Have a look at the following example and its rewritten version:
Charlie was a smart, well-kept man.
Charlie adjusted his collar and brushed a speck of something from his lapel. He picked up the phone and listened carefully. Eventually, he said, “That’s a mistake, David. The short sellers and that bad business off of the coast of Panama will tank your investment.”
In the first example, there is no evidence of Charlie’s intelligence or dress sense. The writer is telling the reader about Charlie—he isn’t showing anything. In the second example, the writer makes no overt mention of Charlie’s characteristics; he shows his dress sense and intelligence through description and dialogue.
Remember, readers derive much of their enjoyment from figuring out things for themselves. Telling robs them of this pleasure.
Show, Don’t Tell Examples
Before we look at a method that can be used to make writing less static, let’s have a look at more examples of showing and telling.
The weather was unpleasant and the forest was scary.
The rain fell without end, and we had to hold on to the fence as we struggled toward the woodland. No light came from the forest, but I thought I saw movement beyond the trees.
In the original example, the weather (“unpleasant”) and atmosphere (“scary”) are explicitly defined. These statements rob the scene of tension and, yes, atmosphere. The second example does not need any overt statement—pouring rain is indicative of unpleasant weather, and movement in a dark forest is enough to convey a foreboding atmosphere.
Andy was a braggart and yattered on without end. He never allowed anyone to reply.
“I’m the best player in our local soccer league,” Andy said, holding up a hand to silence James. “I once scored four goals—four—with as much ease as someone taking a walk in the park.”
“That’s great, Andy,” James said, checking his watch, “but—”
“Of course, I was pretty good at tennis as well,” Andy said. “If it wasn’t for my coach, I would have gone pro.”
“That’s great.” James glanced across the room. “I should really get going—”
“That’s the problem with amateur coaches,” Andy pressed on, “no appreciation for talent and other people’s time.”
Again, the first example removes the necessity for reader interaction. Andy’s most jarring personality traits are summed up in two sentences, which robs the reveal of enjoyment. The rewritten example makes no overt mention of Andy’s traits; instead, they are shown through dialogue and behavior. This adds authenticity to the character and makes reading about him more enjoyable.
I love her.
The pigeon tried to fly, but flopped to the ground. Its wing stood at an odd angle, but nobody paid the bird any regard. At times, when a woman walked past, she would utter, “Shame.” But then that same woman would hurry on—it was midday, after all, and everyone was busy.
Not Emily. When she saw the bird, she rushed over. It tried to limp away, but she enveloped it in her jersey. I knew she would take it home and nurse it back to health; she had done so before.
It didn’t matter that Emily’s hair was unkempt, or that she didn’t have money for makeup. I knew I would marry her one day. When I did, I would tell the story of the broken bird.
The original statement (I love her) carries little weight. So what if the narrator loves Emily? Who is she, and why does he love her? The rewritten version sets Emily apart from all the other women in the square. It shows her empathetic actions toward the pigeon. The reader can relate to this, and therefore understands why the narrator has affections for her. There is no need to make any overt statement—the narrator clearly loves her. As we can see, showing conveys greater impact than telling.
How to Fix Telling in Writing
Remember, not all telling is bad—in fact, telling is a crucial part of any story. However, when possible, the writer should always show and not tell. The easiest way to insert showing into a scene is by creating a visual representation of the information.
For example, the statement, “Sandy is smart,” is lukewarm. It is the type of sentence that the reader pays little attention to. However, if Sandy’s intelligence is made visible with action, then it gives the reader a mental image to work with. Let’s have another look at the statement:
Sandy is smart.
Sandy rose from her desk and stamped her foot. After staring down the professor, she marched to the chalkboard and rewrote the formula. When she finished, the professor’s face turned red with fury.
Do you see how much better the second version reads? Transforming the statement into a scene that can be visualized makes it much more memorable. It also allows the writer to flesh out Sandy as a character. Let’s have a look at another example:
He is overweight.
He has folds under his neck, and he waddles from side to side when he walks.
Tell-y writing can be vague and difficult to visualize. In the first example, the meaning of “overweight” is dependent on the person who is reading. The rewritten version leaves no doubt as to the man’s appearance. As with the first example, visualization helps to make the character more memorable.
Excessive telling is a common mistake in prose. If you want to show more and tell less, then have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s Services page. Our developmental editors specialize in making writing more action oriented and engaging.