Show, Don't Tell
“Show, don’t tell.” Writers and editors throw this phrase around all the time, but what does it (really) mean? The classic explanation is that the difference between showing and telling is like the difference between being at a concert and being told about it by a friend. Simple enough.
Recognizing it in your writing, however, is trickier. This blog posts aims to clarify the subject and offer some tips on how to recognize when you’ve shown, when you’ve told, and which is best in a given situation (note: showing isn’t always best!).
This post is broken into three sections:
1. What is showing? What is telling? Why does it matter?
2. How can you evaluate showing and telling in your own writing?
3. Where can you go to find out more?
There’s so much more to the subject than can be wrangled in 1800 words, but it’s a start.
So, without further ado …
Section 1: What is showing? What is telling? Why does it matter?
Two quotes are incredibly helpful in demonstrating what “show, don’t tell” means and why it matters.
In Intuitive Editing, editor Tiffany Yates Martin draws on a classic Anton Chekhov quote to explain what it means to show and to demonstrate why shown prose is so effective. Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Martin argues that by showing the glint of light on broken glass, you tell readers so much more than “the moon is shining.” Readers learn it’s nighttime and that there’s a clear sky. You imply the setting and convey a mood, making readers wonder, “Why is the glass broken?” You even, Martin suggests, imply to the reader that the protagonist is the type of person who notices details and looks at the ground rather than the sky.
Showing readers the “glint of light on broken glass” allows them to experience the moonlight for themselves, whereas telling them “the moon is shining” conveys information but not an experience.
In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King write, “Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act; you’re getting really involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, ‘Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing undermined her confidence? Do you get it?’”
When authors tell rather than show, they can have a similar impact on readers. Told prose explains (and can remind readers “someone wrote this!” just as they should be getting lost in the story); shown prose offers enough information for readers to put the pieces together themselves.
More specifically, shown prose:
Can be acted out.
You can’t act out “angrily,” but you can “stomp out of the room and slam the door.”
Implies intent or emotion rather than stating it.
“She realized he was kinder than she thought,” versus, “At the corner, Marcus offered his elbow to
her grandmother. She looped her frail arm through his and started into the road, Marcus matching
his long strides to Nana's much shorter ones. Heat spread across Ana’s face. Oh shit.”
Allows the reader to envision exactly what you intended.
Every reader will interpret, “she felt annoyed” differently, but how about, “She plunked onto the
couch, rolling her eyes. ‘Mom! Why is my curfew ten o’clock when everyone else’s is midnight? So
Showing works best when you want readers to experience the story first hand, rather than through a filter. It also works best when a scene is significant to your story (no point in taking the time and energy to show, rather than tell, something that’s only tangentially important … this is especially true if you’re already struggling to contain your word count).
Told prose, meanwhile, is “a description of the thing (whatever that is) rather than the thing itself.”
“She sputtered with indignation, barely able to form words because she was so angry.”
“Ana watched as Marcus helped Nana across the road. ‘Oh shit,’ she thought as she realized he was much kinder than she’d given him credit for.”
“Carly was annoyed. It was going to be yet another night when she had to leave by ten while everyone else stayed until midnight.”
Telling offers a narrative summary of an item, emotion, or situation, and works well to give readers a breather between scenes. It allows characters to get each other up to speed on important information quickly, and assists authors with world building, transitioning between settings, and summing up series of repetitive events.
Here are a few more examples of “show, don’t tell” (which I wrote, so please bear with me):
Telling: “Stepping into the room, she gagged, disgusted. She saw dirty plates piled in the sink, smudged windows, and an overflowing trashcan. She felt sick. The room was filthy. She knew it was no place for a child.”
Showing: “She stepped into the room, then stopped short. Food-crusted dishes filled the sink and lined the counter, and what little light made it through the dirt-streaked windows illuminated the trash can. My God. Rotting food and garbage overflowed onto the floor, crawling with maggots. Nausea roiled her stomach. How can any child live in this?”
Telling: “She took a hard fall. It concerns me that she hasn't awakened,” the doctor said gravely." (The adverb “gravely" is the sneaky tell.)
Showing: "'She took a hard fall. Each hour that passes without her waking makes it less likely that she'll recover,' the doctor said." (Rewritten dialogue so that your reader understands the doctor’s gravity rather than being told about it.) OR "A shadow crossed the doctor's face. 'She took a hard fall. It concerns me that she hasn't awakened'." (Action beat added to show “gravely” instead of tell it.)
Telling: “Jen hid in her closet, squeezed tightly into the corner. She heard the intruder as he walked up the steps. She felt terrified realizing that the police might not reach her before he did.”
Showing: “Jen hid in her closet, squeezed tightly into the corner. Her heart pounded with each creak of the steps, and she muffled her ragged breathing with her knees. Please. Please let the police get here before he does.”
Telling: “Frank saw the sunset spread out before him; it stopped him in his tracks. He saw the mottled oranges and pinks as they faded into the deep purple silhouette of the mountain, and thought sadly, ‘Sheila would have loved this’.”
Showing: “Frank glanced up, then stumbled to a stop. ‘Holy smokes, what a sunset,’ he said, his voice catching. ‘Sheila would have loved this’.”
Section 2: How can you evaluate showing and telling in your own writing?
Just to reiterate this point, showing isn’t necessarily better than telling. Both types of prose have their place. As the author, you’ll want to evaluate whether you’ve used shown prose and told prose to their best advantage. Here are some strategies for doing so:
Either on paper or using Microsoft Word’s highlighter function, read through your chapter or manuscript and highlight the scenes (where there is action taking place in real time) and dialogue. Now look at what’s left over. All the unhighlighted text is likely to be told prose, and your job is to evaluate whether it’s necessary.
You’ll also need to take a minute to check your dialogue tags for adverbs. Adverbs often describe to readers what they should already understand from the dialogue itself. For example, if your protagonist has put themselves on a crazy crash diet, you might write, “The scents of vanilla and caramelized sugar hung in the air. Her mouth watered. Cakes of every shape and color lined the countertops. ‘Oh my God,’ she said longingly.” Given the context, do readers need to be told your MC speaking with longing? Probably not.
Search for filter words. Filter words include: heard, saw, smelled, felt, tasted, thought, because, realized, noticed, believed, decided, in [emotion], with [emotion], etc. (I’ve highlighted the filter words in the examples above).
Search for descriptor words, especially adverbs (also highlighted above), and determine if they are explaining to your reader something they could have figured out for themselves.
Ask yourself: is this for the characters’ benefit or the readers’? If you’re including information specifically for the reader, chances are you’re telling.
Ask yourself: do people really think this way? It’s rare that any of us thinks, “Wow, I’m reacting aggressively!” or “Goodness, I’m feeling fearful.” Instead, we note the way our bodies react to emotions and situations. Or, we just act out, driven by instinct, and reach conclusions about why we behaved that way after the moment has passed. If your characters are having enlightened internal dialogues about their emotions and motivations, chances are you’re telling.
Section 3: Where can you go to find out more?
The concepts of show and tell are difficult to pin down because they change depending on POV, narrative distance, and the author’s intent. The appropriate balance between showing and telling also changes based on genre. Thrillers, for example, are better suited for more showing, while fantasy and literary fiction allow for more telling. Plus, at the end of the day, you’re the boss of your writing! When you choose to show and tell is up to you.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the topic to ensure you’re making authoritative decisions about when to use shown prose versus told (rather than lapsing into one or the other accidentally), these resources will get you started:
Janice Hardy, Understanding Show Don’t Tell: And Really Getting It (Seriously, run to buy or borrow this one, then take copious notes.)
Or, if you’d prefer the Cliff Notes version: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2016/01/what-you-need-to-know-about-show-dont.html
Tiffany Yates Martin, Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing
Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself into Print
Nailing down the concept of “show, don’t tell” is a work in progress for most of us. I pulled one of my examples of showing above from a presentation I gave several months ago … and realized while revising the post that I’d included some telling! (I fixed it, and would like to think I haven’t made the same mistake with one of the newly-written examples, but you can call me on it if I have.) Every little bit counts, so keep an eye out for filter words and adverbs, and see if there are places where rewriting to show (or changing to tell!) would strengthen your writing. Good luck!
 Tiffany Yates Martin, Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing (Fox Print Press LLC, 2020), 139.  Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 83-84.  Martin, 137.