Show, Don’t Tell

February 27, 2023

White hands holding plain white book. Photo by Monstera on
White hands holding plain white book

Hey, folks!

A concept that I struggled with for a good long while was “show, don’t tell.” I just never found a good explanation for what that meant, exactly. So I would grasp at the concept, maybe understand part of it, but I couldn’t articulate it. I think part of me knew what it meant, enough to be able to avoid glaring instances of it in my writing and feel that something was off in someone else’s.

But then it finally clicked. So I’m hoping that by writing this post, I can help it click for someone else.

When you boil show vs. tell down to its basic parts, this is essentially what you get:

Telling is the equivalent of recounting an experience to a friend as it happened to you.

Showing is the equivalent of recounting an experience to a friend as though they’re experiencing it in the moment.

When you tell, you can talk about what your senses experienced: I saw a tall tree. The petals looked bright. The bread smelled fresh.

When you show, you relate it as you’d think it. When you’re experiencing something, you don’t usually think “I’m seeing” or “I’m feeling,” right? So, unless it’s necessary to getting the point across, you can leave it out: The tree towered over me. The petals all but glowed. The scent of warm bread fresh from the oven made my mouth water. (See how I still used “scent,” but without it the experience wouldn’t quite be the same?)

When you’re writing, you want readers to feel like they’re the ones in the thick of the action, not like they’re seeing it happen from the outside. The more you tell, the more you force readers to look on and wish they were living the characters life rather than feeling, for a short while, like they are.

It also encourages empathy in readers. The more they can live the experience, the more they can feel for the character with whatever situation they’re in.

This is as applicable as it is to first person as it is to third, as applicable to picture books as an epic fantasy. Many poems even benefit from showing!

Of course, sometimes telling is necessary. “Show, don’t tell” only goes so far. But why would you need to tell? Here are a couple instances:
– To situate readers quickly. We don’t need a long description of the vivid sunrise (unless that’s the entire point of what you’re writing). Just tell us the sun was rising and then get to the good stuff.
– To explain important details about history or culture that readers need to know then. Just make sure you don’t overdo it! Space it out where you can. (Giving it all at once is known as info dumping.)

Make sure telling doesn’t unnaturally end up in dialogue. If character A is explaining something to character B, and B doesn’t actually know the info, that’s likely fine. But if B does know the info, it’s unnatural for A to relay it to them.

Example, two characters from Ottawa, Canada, talking to each other about winter:
“It’s November third,” Sally said. “We often get snow between Halloween and Easter.”“I know that, Sally,” Billy said. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”

Unnatural, right? So what about…

Sally shivered into her coat. “It’s freezing out here.” The straggling Halloween decorations – the odd pumpkin, a smiling skeleton – contrasted eerily with the newly strung Christmas lights.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if snow came tonight,” Billy said.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t already, honestly.”

Doesn’t that feel more like a conversation people would have? Things someone might notice? The bit about snowing until Easter, and Billy living there his whole life, really isn’t relevant, at least not at this moment in time. If readers need that information in the story, it can be added in at a more natural time.

Note how more showing was added to the second as well. Sally notices the clashing decorations without telling readers that it’s just after Halloween, without saying it’s the beginning of November, but that information is still evident.

This is what it means to show rather than tell – you want readers to see, feel, hear what’s going on, not have the information laid bare before them unless necessary.

Hopefully that helps a little bit with the whole notion of “show, don’t tell.” If you have any questions about it, feel free to leave a comment!

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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