Show, don’t tell.
Any writing expert will tell you it’s crucial to learn how to show action through your writing instead of simply telling the reader about it.
Learning how to “show, don’t tell” in your writing can make the difference between having your novel relegated to the slush pile or getting a great book deal.
So what does it mean?
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
“Show, don’t tell” means you must demonstrate action through your writing instead of having a narrator just talk about action.
When you tell the reader that your protagonist is strong, brave, and intelligent, that’s telling, and too much telling makes for very boring reading.
Instead, you should show the traits of your character through action. You can write a scene where the protagonist carries huge bales of hay on a farm weighing a hundred pounds each to demonstrate his great strength.
You can write a scene where the hero must put himself in danger to protect someone he doesn’t even know to show how brave he his. For another “show don’t tell” example, J.K. Rowling wrote many scenes in which Hermione Granger had to solve complex problems in order to show how intelligent she is.
Simply put: instead of telling your readers that a character has certain traits, demonstrate those traits through action and scene.
When to Show vs. Tell
So when should you show and when should you tell the reader?
For the most part, you should show your readers information rather than dictate it to them…but not always. In fact, there are times you should just tell the reader something to save them time. For example, if you had to write a scene to demonstrate every single trait of every single character in a novel, you would have to write a 500,000-word novel, and it would be incredibly boring and disorganized.
In general, you should show the most important ideas you’re trying to communicate to readers.
Anything insignificant or tangential to the story arc and development of characters and plot, you can tell the reader about (such as the fact that a certain character has green eyes). The fact that a character has a certain eye color isn’t going to affect the plot or character development, so it’s not important enough to require showing the reader.
However, if the character arc for your protagonist is that he’s a shy, weak, scared boy, who learns to become courageous and strong, that’s really the heart of the story—and so you absolutely must show that protagonist in scenes acting shy, weak, and scared, so the reader can truly experience the transformation as the character grows and develops throughout the story.
If you simply set the book up by telling the reader that the protagonist is shy, weak, and scared in the beginning, you’ll end up with a very weak story because when you tell such important information to your reader instead of showing them, your reader won’t build up empathy for your protagonist, and that character will be boring and difficult to identify with.
Point of View vs. Showing
Great writing requires mastery of POV (Point of View), which is the perspective or lens through which the reader experiences the story. POV is based entirely on the words you choose to use.
When you use the wrong POV or switch POV randomly throughout your writing, you are almost certainly going to get stuck telling the reader about what happened or what’s happening in the story instead of showing the action through the correct POV.
You can read about different types of Point of View to make sure you understand POV.
“Show, Don’t Tell” Examples
Telling: He knew something was wrong because he could see the fear in her eyes and that she was trembling.
Showing: She trembled and looked up at him with fear in her eyes.
Notice how much more powerful the showing example is here. It uses half the worlds but packs twice the punch because you’re seeing her in action demonstrating her fear instead of being told what one character noticed.
Note: It’s almost never the job of a character to notice something—it’s the reader’s job to notice and figure it out! By showing the action, you can have the reader and the characters figure it out at the same time, creating wonderful “aha!” moments that add up to a thrilling narrative.
Telling: Roger was never very bright when it came to figuring things out, and he could never seem to do even simple things right.
Showing: Roger had been working on the crossword puzzle for two hours; so far he had scribbled out more spaces than he had gotten correct. All he had to show for his hard work so far were ink stains on his hands.
Notice how this showing example demonstrates the characteristics of this character by showing that not only can he not even come close to completing a crossword puzzle, but he doesn’t even know that he should be using a pencil instead of a pen.
By showing how your characters behave, readers can interpret their traits and characteristics automatically, instead of you having to endlessly describe every character.
Telling: There was glass all over the floor, and a pool of blood behind the bar.
Showing: His boots crunched as he walked behind the bar. “Holy shit!” he screamed when he saw the pool of blood.
Notice how this showing example allows you to experience the scene through the character’s experience, and it also provides much more context, like the character’s emotional reaction.
Telling: The pancake tasted bitter, and he couldn’t stand it.
Showing: He took a bite and quickly spit out the pancake. “Darlene! Why’d you put too much baking powder in the pancakes again?”
Notice how you can use dialogue to show ideas, emotions, and actions, rather than simply telling the reader about it. Since tasting is an experiential verb, you should never tell readers about that experience.
When your characters have experiences, you should be showing your reader those experiences through strong scenes and action, not by talking about the experience from a third-person perspective.
When to Show
You should show in your writing when:
- You need to demonstrate a character’s most vital experiences, emotions, or beliefs
- You have an opportunity to use interesting dialogue to illustrate an idea or concept
- You need to convey information that is crucial to the story arc or a character’s arc
- You need to convey information that is crucial for the reader to understand the plot (if you simply tell the reader about an important plot point, it can seem a bit too obvious later on, but if the reader has to notice that information inside a scene of action, the reader will feel good for having figured it out).
- When you need to go into more detail
When to Tell
You should tell in your writing when:
- You want to convey information to the reader that isn’t crucial to the plot, character arc, or story development (such as the color of a character’s eyes or brief background information about a character that is interesting but not crucial to the story)
- You can’t think of a way to convey that information in a scene or action
- You need to quickly convey information so you can get back to a scene or action, and there’s no good way to show it
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