18 “Show Don’t Tell” Examples: How to Turn Bland Writing Into a Colorful Story
T hese examples of “Show Don’t Tell” will inspire you to tell better stories by directing a mental movie in your readers’ minds.
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Show, Don’t Tell
Helen frowns while reading her draft story.
She purses her lips, and wonders, Why does the story feel flat? Why does it seem to drag on? Where has the drama gone? Is it too long?
Okay, she thinks. Time to cut down my story.
She removes a few sentences here, scraps a whole paragraph there, shortens another sentence. After crossing out words for over 20 minutes, she’s reduced her word count almost by half. Phew. With a sigh of relief, she treats herself to Jasmine tea with carrot cake.
But, hey, what happened to her story?
It seems even worse than before.
Sometimes stories are too short rather than too long
When a writer hasn’t painted vivid imagery, readers can’t picture what’s happening. That’s when a story feels flat. Devoid of drama. Dull.
To let readers experience your story, show rather than tell:
- Telling means giving a brief, factual statement.
- Showing means using sensory details and describing actions to direct a mental movie in your reader’s mind.
Showing is: She yawned.
Telling is: She is hungry.
Showing is: Her stomach rumbles.
And the best way to learn the difference between showing and telling?
Firstly, study how authors use this technique in their writing. Start with the examples below. And secondly, practice.
Show, Don’t Tell Exercise
You can use the 18 examples below for practice:
- Review the “to tell” statements and consider how you can prove these statements (such as he’s nervous, she’s lonely). How can you see or hear that someone is nervous or lonely? Which actions demonstrate it?
- Write down two or three actions or sensory details that show rather than tell.
- Compare your notes to the “to show” examples.
Show Don’t Tell Examples: How to show emotions
To demonstrate someone’s emotions, think about what somebody does when they feel angry, hungover, or happy.
How can you see their anger in their movements? What does an angry face look like? What are they muttering or screaming? What would they say when thinking aloud?
Example #1: He’s nervous about his job interview
In his book Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue shows Jende is nervous:
Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country.
His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.
Can you hear the internal monologue droning on in Jende’s mind?
After the monologue comes a tactile description of his throat going dry and his palms moistening, and then you can picture Jende wiping his palms on his pants. Vivid?
Example #2: She was angry
From Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:
She slammed her glass down so hard that it slopped over on an ivory cushion. She swung her legs to the floor and stood up with her eyes sparking fire and her nostrils wide. Her mouth was open and her bright teeth glared at me. Her knuckles were white.
Have you notice the strong verbs in this example? Verbs like to slam, to slop over, to swing, to spark and to glare inject power into the writing.
Example #3: Cheryl has started the Pacific Crest Trail but she fears she can’t do this
In her book Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found, Cheryl Strayed shows her fear as follows:
Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs.
So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heard—my feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot wind—but it could not be done.
The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.
Note how many sensory words are used in the above paragraph, like screaming, humming, panting, thudding, clattering, clamor, drowning out. As a reader, you can almost hear Cheryl’s fight with her fears.
Emotions like fear, nervousness, anger, and happiness remain abstract unless we show readers how such emotions manifest themselves in body language, dialogues, or actions.
Instead of telling readers you’re happy, can readers see you’re grinning from ear to ear?
Show Don’t Tell Examples: How to show feelings
Emotions are expressed through physical reactions—we can see someone’s emotions in their body language.
Feelings can be expressed physically, too, but they can also be internal perceptions of our mental state. This can make it harder to show rather than tell.
To show feelings, consider someone’s inner thoughts and think about a person’s environment or activities that may accentuate or symbolize their feelings.
Example #4: Kate feels lonely, despite sharing a house with four other people
In her book The Lido, Libby Page demonstrates Kate’s loneliness as follows:
Kate lives in a house-share with four other people – two students and two who do something but she’s not quite sure what. They come in at different times and shut their bedroom doors, occasionally passing on the way to the (one) bathroom.
They are people that she has heard grunting in the heat of sex (thin walls) and whose pubic hairs she has untangled from the shower plug, but she doesn’t know where they all came from before arriving here in this house, or what their favourite films are. She doesn’t really know them at all. And they certainly don’t know her. But what is there to know really?
Can you feel Kate’s loneliness, symbolized by the lack of interaction?
Example #5: She feels trapped in her hometown
In The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, one of the protagonists explains why she feels trapped by her hometown’s smallness:
She’d trampled the same dirt roads her entire life; she’d carved her initials on the bottom of school desks that her mother had once used, and that her children would someday, feeling her jagged scratching with their fingers.
The initials on the bottom of school desks—carved by 3 generations of one family—symbolize the feeling of being trapped in the eternal monotony of small-town life. When will things ever change?
Show Don’t Tell Examples: How to show a person’s passion
You know I’m passionate about writing, don’t you?
But have I ever told you that?
Nope, I show my passion by sharing my best writing tips and tricks so you can tell better stories and share your ideas with gusto.
What are you passionate about? And which actions can prove your passion?
Get inspired by the 6 examples below …
Example #6: Frank, a music shop owner, is passionate about sharing music with people, even strangers
In her book The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce demonstrates Frank’s passion as follows:
‘We had another shoplifter today,’ [Frank] said, apropos of not very much at all. ‘First he flipped because we had no CDs. Then he asked to look at a record and made a run for it.’
‘What was it this time?’
‘Genesis. Invisible Touch.’
‘What did you do, Frank?’
(…) Frank had done the sort of thing he always did. He’d grabbed his old suede jacket and loped after the young man until he caught him at the bus stop. (What kind of thief waited for the number 11?)
He’d said, between deep breaths, that he would call the police unless the lad came back and tried something new in the listening booth. He could keep the Genesis record if he wanted the thing so much, though it broke Frank’s heart that he was nicking the wrong one – their early stuff was tons better.
He could have the album for nothing, and even the sleeve; ‘so long as you try “Fingal’s Cave”. If you like Genesis, trust me. You’ll love Mendelssohn.’
Isn’t it amazing how such a short story can characterize one person? It feels like you know Frank a little already.
Example #7: Young Araki loves dictionaries
In her book The Great Passage, Shion Miura describes Araki’s love for dictionaries as follows:
Araki began saving up his allowance for trips to the used bookstore. When a new edition of a dictionary came out, a copy of the earlier edition could usually be purchased on the cheap.
Little by little he collected a variety of dictionaries from different publishers and compared them. Some were tattered and worn. Others had annotations and underlining in red. Old dictionaries bore signs of the linguistic struggles of compiler and user alike.
Can you picture the dictionaries in Araki’s room?
Example #8: Sportcoat is a nature-lover
In his book Deacon King Kong, James McBride describes the protagonist as a nature-lover:
He was friends with anything that grew: tomatoes, herbs, butter beans, dandelions, beggar’s-lice, wild spur, bracken, wild geranium. There was not a plant that he could not coax out of its hiding place, nor a seed he could not force to the sun, nor an animal he could not summon or sic into action with an easy smile and affable strong hands.
I like how this paragraph expresses that enjoyment of nature is not a passive state but an active act—of summoning an animal into action and of coaxing plants grow and seeds to sprout.
Example #9: Robin Wall Kimmerer loves plants
While the ways to tell something are relatively limited, myriad ways exist to show something.
For instance, here’s how Robin Wall Kimmerer describes she’s a born botanist in her book Braiding Sweetgrass:
(…) how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants colored my dreams, that the plants had chosen me?
I love how those last words describe that botany is her calling: “The plants had chosen me.”
Example #10: Lars is passionate about good food
In his book Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal demonstrates a passion for food as follows:
In the same fashion that a musical parent may curate their child’s exposure to certain songs, Lars had spent weeks plotting a menu for his baby daughter’s first months:
Week One NO TEETH, SO:
1. Homemade guacamole.
2. Puréed prunes (do infants like prunes?)
3. Puréed carrots (Sugarsnax 54, ideally, but more likely Autumn King).
4. Puréed beets (Lutz green leaf).
5. Homemade Honeycrisp applesauce (get apples from Dennis Wu).
6. Hummus (from canned chickpeas? Maybe wait for week 2.)
7. Olive tapenade (maybe with puréed Cerignola olives? Ask Sherry Dubcek about the best kind of olives for a newborn.)
8. What for protein and iron?
Can you picture Lars writing down the menu, while licking his lips?
And, thinking about your own passions, which actions describe them best?
Example #11: Chris doesn’t like going to the gym
Of course, just like you show what a person loves doing, you can also show their dislikes.
In his book The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman shows that Chris doesn’t like going to the gym:
Of all the machines at the gym, the bike suits him best. For a start you’re sitting down, and you can look at your phone while you’re using it. You can take things at your own pace – sedate in Chris’s case – but you can also speed up to look more impressive any time a muscled man in a singlet or a muscled woman in Lycra walks by.
And Chris comments on the exercise bike:
The heart-rate monitor was terrifying; Chris had seen numbers that surely couldn’t be right. The calorie counter was worst of all. Six miles of cycling to burn off a hundred calories? Six miles? For half a Twix? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Isn’t it amazing how just a few sentences give such a good impression of someone’s dislike of exercise?
Show Don’t Tell Examples: Turn weak action into a movie-like description
Don’t be fooled into thinking that action is always telling rather than showing.
Some action is so vague a reader can’t really imagine what’s happening.
As a writer it’s your task to help readers experience your story. So, give them enough vivid details to let a movie play in their mind.
Example #12: Moody shows Pearl the town
In her book Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng paints a vivid image of the town tour:
They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draeger’s for hot fudge sundaes.
At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below.
In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Hey Jude.”
Much more vivid than an abstract tour of the town, right?
Example #13: Jack Reacher fires his Barrett
In the thriller Die Trying, Lee Child slows down the action to heighten the drama:
First thing out of the barrel of Reacher’s Barrett was a blast of hot gas. The powder in the cartridge exploded in a fraction of a millionth of a second and expanded to a superheated bubble.
That bubble of gas hurled the bullet down the barrel and forced ahead of it and around it to explode out into the atmosphere. Most of it was smashed sideways by the muzzle brake in a perfectly balanced radial pattern, like a donut, so that the recoil moved the barrel straight back against Reacher’s shoulder without deflecting it either sideways or up or down.
Meanwhile, behind it, the bullet was starting to spin inside the barrel as the rifling grooves grabbed at it.
Then the gas ahead of the bullet was heating the oxygen in the air to the point where the air caught fire. There was a brief flash of flame and the bullet burst out through the exact center of it, spearing through the burned air at nineteen hundred miles an hour.
A thousandth of a second later, it was a yard away, followed by a cone of gunpowder particles and a puff of soot. Another thousandth of a second later, it was six feet away, and its sound was bravely chasing after it, three times slower.
That’s 225 words to describe less than one-hundredth of a second.
Lee Child is a master in pacing his stories. He keeps us reading for pages and pages before he at last reveals whether the bullet hits someone or not.
Remember, slow down the action to heighten the drama.
Example #14: Harold and his brother Raymond didn’t know what to say to Maggie
Even when nothing seems to happen, you can still paint a vivid picture as Kent Haruf does in Plainsong:
They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Can you imagine how you’d film this scene?
“Show don’t tell” works for objects and environments, too
A landscape is not a still life painting; you can detect subtle movements such as grass waving or with powerful activities like trees creaking in a storm.
Example #15: The ice surface is a chaos of crushing movement
In his book Endurance, Alfred Lansing describes the astonishing story of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to cross Antarctica.
Here’s when their ship finds herself in a dangerous situation:
The whole surface of the ice was a chaos of movement. It looked like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, the pieces stretching away to infinity and being shoved and crunched together by some invisible but irresistible force. The impression of its titanic power was heightened by the unhurried deliberateness of the motion. Wherever two thick floes came together, their edges butted and ground against one another for a time. Then, when neither of them showed signs of yielding, they rose, slowly and often quiveringly, driven by the implacable power behind them. Sometimes they would stop abruptly as the unseen force affecting the ice appeared mysteriously to lose interest. More frequently, though, the two floes—often 10 feet thick or more—would continue to rise, tenting up, until one or both of them broke and toppled over, creating a pressure ridge.
Can you picture the scene? Does it make you feel scared, too?
Example #16: The ship is crushed by the ice
Here’s how Lansing describes what happens to the ship:
She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.
Lansing describes the ship as if she is a person screaming, dying, and crying out in agony. This is called personification, and it adds an extra dimension to the principle of showing.
Showing places readers directly into a scene, so they can experience what’s happening to a story’s character, even if that character is a ship.
Example #17: The porch was cluttered
Describing a room, a porch, or a garden can show us a lot about the person living there, too.
This is from Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road:
Micah had to swerve around a skateboard and a sippy cup on his way up the front steps, and the porch was strewn not only with the standard strollers and tricycles but also with a pair of snow boots from last winter, a paper bag full of coat hangers, and what appeared to be somebody’s breakfast plate bearing a wrung-out half of a grapefruit.
Reading that description is like watching a movie, right?
Example #18: Everything is in the right place
And here’s an opposite description of a neat person, also from Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road:
His sock drawer looked like a box of bonbons, each pair rolled and standing on end according to his instructions. Newspaper read in the proper sequence, first section first and second section next, folded back knife-sharp when he was done. Lord forbid someone should fiddle with the paper before him! He was a sign painter by profession, and all of his paints and his India inks were lined up by color in alphabetical order. The Bs I remember especially, because there were so many of them. Beige, black, blue, brown …
The 3 examples of neatness in the paragraph above sketch a persuasive image of how neat this person is. I love the simile at the start: “His sock drawer looked like a box of bonbons.”
How to show AND tell
The general advice is that we must show and not tell.
But that’s not always true.
Sometimes, it’s quicker to tell. So, you tell instead of showing to keep the pace of the story.
At other times you may want to both tell and show, so readers are clear how to interpret your story.
For instance, here’s an example of “tell and show” from Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner:
I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it. She remembered if you liked your stews with extra broth, if you were sensitive to spice, if you hated tomatoes, if you didn’t eat seafood, if you had a large appetite. She remembered which banchan side dish you emptied first so the next time you were over it’d be set with a heaping double portion, served alongside the various other preferences that made you, you.
Zauner first tells, suggesting that her mother showed her love by paying attention and making you feel comforted and cared for. Then she shows with the examples how her mother did that by paying attention to what you liked, and giving a bigger portion the next time.
And here’s an example from The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May:
What I hadn’t considered, though, was just how miserable the combination of walking fifteen boring miles and battling through oncoming rain would be. You can see absolutely nothing, because your head is angled relentlessly down. Your glasses steam up, but there’s no point in wiping them. Your neck begins to ache. Progress is surprisingly slow.
The first sentence above tells us that it’s miserable to walk in the rain. The next sentences show why that’s the case: That you can see absolutely nothing, that your glasses steam up, that your neck aches, and that progress is slow.
In just a few sentences, May first tells us and then shows us why walking in the rain makes her miserable.
When to show and when to tell
Telling is brief and factual.
Showing, in contrast, uses more words to direct a mental movie in your readers’ minds.
- Add sensory details to make the story more vivid—this is how you allow readers to experience your story.
- Slow down to describe action in more detail—this is how you increase the drama in your writing.
When you show rather than tell, your reader becomes an active participant in your story.
So, race through the less important parts of your story.
And dramatize the key parts, with detailed and vivid descriptions.
Now, imagine your favorite reader …
She’s sitting at her desk, sipping a cup of coffee.
She switches on her laptop, wipes the sleep from her right eye, and briefly massages her temples. Then she opens your email and clicks to read your blog post.
A lightbulb goes off in her mind and she whizzes off a quick email to thank you. She’s excited to implement your advice.
Show Don’t Tell: How to Show Not Tell in Writing With Exercises
Learning how to show don’t tell in writing is one of the most difficult—and important—parts of writing when you first start.
It’s what will give readers the coveted emotional attachment that forges true, long-lasting fans (and customers!).
Part of writing and publishing a book successfully is ensuring you have the highest quality writing, and this rule of show don’t tell is crucial for that.
When you start writing a book, it’s as if everyone around you becomes the expert. They tell you to show don’t tell, start with action, or even embellish your stories to sound “better.”
But how do you know what advice to take…and what do those writing tips even mean in the first place?
We’re here to help you understand showing versus telling and how that will actually help you write better and stronger.
It’s safe to say that the idea of showing not telling is one all writers should pay close attention to.
Show don’t tell in writing is a piece of advice that’s been around for longer than you might realize. Even if it didn’t have a phrase attached to it yet, the best authors out there have been using it for the duration of their careers (and even before, most likely).
Here’s how to show don’t tell in writing:
In fact, it’s why they’re known as the best writers of all time.
But although these writers knew how to bring their writing to life instinctually, not all of us are so lucky. We have to learn the process of show don’t tell, which can be tricky if you don’t know where to start.
Want to know which author you’re most like? Take the quiz and learn more about yourself and your writing style!
What does show don’t tell mean?
Show don’t tell describes writing in various forms with an emphasis on using and showing actions in order to convey the emotions you want readers to interpret, which creates a better experience for readers, instead of writing exposition to tell what happened.
By showing the actions and relationships and feelings instead of just telling the reader what happened, the writing comes off deeper, and more meaningful. This creates a much deeper connection and brings readers closer to you (or the main character).
At a first glance, this writing rule could be confused for the best day in Kindergarten when you bring your pet lizard in to show the class.
But in actuality, show don’t tell refers to the way in which you describe the experience you (or your character) went through.
And that makes them feel deeper and stronger about the story. It creates empathy and invests the reader – which is exactly what you need.
Writing your book introduction with an abundance of showing not telling is a powerful way to draw readers in for the duration of your entire book.
But this technique is much easier shown than told (hehe – see what I did there?).
[Pssst! Want to see some of our Students’ published books? Check out the SPS Library here!]
Show Don’t Tell Examples:
These examples are pretty basic but that’s the best way to gain an understanding of what this looks like. Keep in mind that your sentences may be more complex than these examples, but still full of “tell” words or phrases.
Be on the lookout for the details.
Show Don’t Tell Example #1:
Tell: “I heard footsteps creeping behind me and it made the whole situation scarier.”
Show: “Crunching hit my ears from behind, accelerating the already rampant pounding of my heart.”
Why this showing example is better:
In an instance such as this, you want the reader to feel what you did: the surprise and the sense of urgency, the fear.
Describing the crunching that hit your ears even through the pounding of your heart not only creates a powerful visual, but it also tells the reader the state your body was in during that intense moment. The first example is weak and does little to explain how you actually felt in that moment.
Show Don’t Tell Example #2:
Tell: “She was my best friend. I could tell her almost anything.”
Show: “ I met her at the town square, running in for our usual hug that carried on for far too long as we gushed about our lives with smiles lighting our faces.”
Why this showing example is better:
The first example of telling is shorter, but it doesn’t do a great job of really showing the impact you have on each other. Anyone can think of “best friend” and form an overall thought about what that looks like. But this isn’t just “anyone.” This is your best friend. Showing your relationship with one another is vital to forging that deeper connection.
Why should you show don’t tell in writing?
The entire point of showing versus telling in writing is to make a stronger emotional connection with your readers and hook them.
They already picked up your book for the killer title and eye-grabbing cover, but they need a reason to stay.
The idea behind this writing technique is to put the reader in your shoes. Make them feel, hear, and sense the situation as you did.
It’s about creating an experience for the reader instead of just a recount of events.
Doing this makes the reader want to root for you. They want to hear your whole story and in turn, they’ll read your whole book.
Why is showing not telling also important for non-fiction?
If you write fiction, you hear this advice all the time. However, all of you non-fiction writers out there, this piece of writing advice might be new to you.
Show don’t tell isn’t always the first thing a non-fiction writer thinks of when it comes to adding more intrigue to your story.
But it is the most vital for pulling your reader in and not only hooking them, but keeping them with you throughout the duration of your book.
Many fiction writers hear this writing advice often because it’s one of the best ways to make real people feel deeply for fictional characters.
When it comes to writing a story about your life and something you went through, the idea is the same. By showing and not telling, you’ll be able to guide them through your real-life situation as an experience and not just some book they’re reading while the kids are yelling at their video games and the oven alarm is blaring in the distance.
If you can show don’t tell the right way, the reader won’t even notice those distractions.
How to Show Don’t Tell in Writing
So now you know what it is and why it’s important, but how the heck do you actually do it? The process of taking a single story and crafting it to create more emotion can be difficult.
Thankfully, we have some of the best tips for showing not telling in writing.
#1 – Get rid of all basic sensory words
Phrases like, “I heard,” “I felt,” and “I smelled,” are all very weak. These are “telling” words and phrases (also commonly referred to as “filters”) that force the reader further away from you and your experience.
That’s exactly what you want to avoid.
Instead, you need to pull them into your world and into your psyche the very moment you were encountering the situation.
This is done by using strong verbs and other visual language.
Show Don’t Tell Exercise #1:
Step 1: Read through your writing and circle every telling word you can find. Anything that explains one of the 5 senses.
Step 2: Then write down specifics for each. If you heard someone creeping up behind you, how did you hear it? Was it crunching on gravel? Was it the shuffling of shoes against carpet?
Once you have these, rewrite those sections by explaining how the senses manifested to you and not just what you sensed (detailed below in the next writing exercise).
#2 – Don’t use “emotion explaining” words
This might be a bit tricky and you certainly don’t have to follow this one 100% of the time, but if you can get this right, it’ll make showing versus telling so much easier to grasp.
Think of any word to describe an emotion. I’ll help you out a little:
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
These are all great words to describe how someone felt. However, they’re also very weak, unexciting ways to do so.
If you need your readers to understand how excited you were at any given time, show them. Don’t just tell them, “I was so excited!”
Show them the sweat beading your forehead as you raced to your destination. Show them the lifting of your cheeks as your lips parted way for an uncontrollable smile.
Show Don’t Tell Exercise #2:
Skim through your writing and circle every word that’s an emotion.
Then, for every emotion-explaining word you find, write down physical reactions of feeling that way.
Once you have a small list for each circled word, use it to craft a couple of sentences to describe (and show!) just what that looked like.
You can see the difference alone between these two paragraphs. By replacing all of the “telling” words and phrases, it develops into an experience for the reader and not just a retelling of what happened.
#3 – Describe body language
One of the best ways you can show not tell in writing is to use strong descriptive language when it comes to body language.
A person’s actions are really a gateway to their mind and how they feel.
You can tell if another person has a crush on someone just by paying attention to the way their body adjusts when in that person’s presence, right?
Showing versus telling in writing is exactly that. You want to show the reader what is happening and allow them to form a conclusion about how you or others in your story felt based on what they look like.
In all honesty, a lot of this one is about having faith that your audience can put two and two together.
Oftentimes, we tend to over-explain in an effort to make something obvious when really, the emotion is in the guesswork; it’s in allowing someone to draw their own conclusions. That over-explaining is what comes across as “telly” and not as emotionally compelling.
And honestly? It’s also pretty boring and flat.
If you do a great job of showing what you want readers to see, they’ll understand how someone feels – and they’ll even feel that way themselves.
That’s the power of showing not telling.
#4 – Use strong verbs
Showing itself can be extremely impactful, but using strong language and verbs in specific situations is even more powerful for adding depth to your story.
The way you make someone else actually feel how you did as you were going through the experience is to make sure the words you’re using directly reflect the emotions .
This can be a difficult task for those who aren’t sure what “strong language” looks likes, but I’ll make it easier for you.
Show Don’t Tell Exercise #3:
Think of a situation you want to explain in your book (or maybe something you already have written out).
Now imagine what feeling you want to convey through that scene. What do you want your readers to take away from that specific moment in your story? List those emotions so you can see all of them.
Take that list and start writing ways in which you can bring those emotions to life. What do those things mean for you? How would these emotions manifest during that specific time?
Now take those stronger verbs and words that depict a deeper emotion and craft your sentence or paragraph with those to reflect how you truly felt.
How does this sentence make you feel? Do you feel comfort, relaxation, and a sense that I love being there?
That was the purpose.
It’s about taking one specific idea or vibe or feeling and using what you know to transform it into something that’s showing not telling.
This specific example for show don’t tell can be a little time-consuming at first, but you will get the hang of it and these methods will soon become second nature to you.
#5 – Focus on describing senses
We told you to cut sensing words in tip #1, and that’s true, but with this comes the fact that you still have to describe what your character is feeling and sensing.
Showing versus telling is largely about allowing your readers to interpret what your characters are going through without just telling them.
This often means using all the senses you can to depict a scene.
Instead of saying, “She hated it there.” you can use her senses to show the readers that emotion.
For example: writing with showing like this “The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke met her nostrils, pulling her face into a familiar grimace.” allows your readers to understand that she finds where she is distasteful, without having to just say so.
#6 – Practice showing not telling every day
To master the tip of show don’t tell in writing, it takes time and practice to get it right. There’s a fine line of using showing versus telling in your writing.
With regular practice (by writing every day, we suggest), you’ll learn when to use telling and when to use showing in order to give the reader the best reading experience they have.
You can even practice by reading other books and your own writing. Recognizing areas of showing can help you do it more in your own works.
Writing Prompt: A Show, Don’t Tell Game
A few minutes ago I searched online, “Show, Don’t Tell.” In point sixty-six seconds, there were six hundred and seventy-five million answers to my search. Clearly, writers want to learn how to show and not tell!
But that number’s overwhelming. Sure, you can read lots of articles. But how can you actually get better at showing?
Here’s how: today, we’re playing a Show, Don’t Tell Game to practice.
Why Show and Not Tell
In grade school, your teacher had Show and Tell. You brought your stuffed Teddy Bear to class to show your class the bear, and you told them how your Teddy Bear came alive at night and fought the monsters under your bed.
If you wrote a story about the Teddy Bear fighting the monsters under your bed, you could say, “I was scared,” or you could show your fear. Did you hide under the covers? Did you wet the bed? Did you jump into bed quickly so the monsters didn’t have enough time to grab your legs?
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
Show, don’t tell, to bring your reader into the story. Let them see the glint of light on broken glass, walk beside the protagonist, and live inside of the pages of your story.
Let the reader decide if your protagonist is scared. Don’t tell us, “She was scared.” Show us.
How to Show and Not Tell
Telling is stating information, and sometimes you will tell in a story. You might want to tell us your protagonist is a carpenter.
On the other hand, you could show she is a carpenter by describing her using her dual-bevel, sliding, compound miter saw.
You can show by using your five senses. What does it smell like, feel like? What does your protagonist hear?
If you’re still not sure you know how to show, check out these other great resources on The Write Practice. In The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell, Joe Bunting explains how to be more specific in your writing.
And in Use This Tip To Test If You’re Showing or Telling, Monica M. Clark shares an awesome strategy for recognizing your own tendencies towards telling: as you revise your manuscript, highlight adjectives and feelings. These words reveal when you’re telling, and you might be amazed at how little you’re showing in comparison.
Understanding the theory of “show, don’t tell” is only half the battle, though. Now, let’s play a game to practice!
Writing Prompt Show and Tell Game
I’ve made a list of possible emotions to use as writing prompts. Choose one — or think of your own! — and write for 15 minutes in the comments section. Then the readers will guess what you are trying to show in your writing.
Think of any adjective or feeling and see if we can guess what you are trying to show.
Show sadness. Writing “she was sad” would tell me what she was feeling. Instead, show me what sad looks like. Is sad staying in bed and not getting dressed? Missing work? Not taking a shower and eating only potato chips?
Show anger. Tell: He was angry. How can you show anger instead? Is anger throwing pots? (It is for me. I am a pot thrower.) Or is anger not talking?
Show fear. Tell: She was scared. Instead of writing that, how would you show fear?
Show surprise. Tell: She was surprised. Instead, how can you show surprise?
Have you ever felt like you were sucked into the pages of a story because the writing brought you in by showing? Please l et us know in the comments.
Choose one of the prompts above or think of your own emotion or adjective. Take fifteen minutes to write a piece that shows us that feeling, then post it in the comments.
Please be kind and comment on someone else’s writing. What do you think they were trying to show?