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Show, Don’t Tell: Tips for Crafting Compelling Writing

Show, Don't Tell

6 August 2023

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Show, don’t tell is an approach to writing that involves capturing action and sensory details rather than just communicating exposition. Our goal? Showing can help to create an engaging story that readers won’t want to put down.

But should you always avoid telling? And how exactly do you show your story?

In this guide, I’ll explore the big questions about show vs tell, tips to implement the technique and some examples.

What is show, don’t tell?

Show, don’t tell is a method of writing whereby writers convey action, emotions and sensory information to tell their story rather than relying on narration and exposition. The purpose of show not tell is to bring readers closer to the action, help them interpret connections and experience tangible emotions. Telling can quickly become dull and boring. Showing, on the other hand, seizes the imagination.

How to show not tell?

Imagine a scene unfolding at a dinner party. Let’s say that every character has a secret and all are willing to do anything to keep the truth from coming out. We don’t want to tell the reader this. We want to show them. Showing the action unfold helps to engage readers and keep them hooked.

So, how does one show rather than tell? You can use active voice, specific details, sensory descriptions and other writing techniques.

In practice, you don’t want to tell readers your cast of characters all have secrets. Instead, you could emphasise characterisation through what they say and do, whether they’re defensive, telling white lies or giving evasive answers. Don’t tell readers how each character met and what they mean to one another. Use dialogue to hint at the truth and allow readers to make connections and interpretations. These writing techniques can help to create a compelling story that grips readers.

Show vs tell

Let’s look at some examples of showing and telling:

Telling

  • They decorated the Christmas tree
  • Betty was too cold and couldn’t sleep
  • The sun was setting

Showing

  • They hung peppermint canes and delicate glass baubles on the bushy evergreen
  • Betty shivered under her blanket, longing for sleep
  • The orange-bronzed glow of the last sunlight reflected off the pond

Tips to implement “show, don’t tell”

1. Be specific

Use concrete language that provides detail, whether it’s setting, emotion or action.

Just as writer Anton Chekhov once said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.”

Specific and vivid descriptions will help to bring your story to life.

2. Use dialogue

Dialogue can tell the reader a lot about a character.

Every character should have a distinct voice, captured through their word choice, sentence length and what they say. When done well, dialogue can show a character’s personality, beliefs and values.

3. Avoid adverbs

Your writing can become weaker with the overuse of adverbs. In fact, adverbs are great opportunities for you to show rather than tell.

Here are two examples.

  • Telling: She ran quickly through the city.
  • Showing: Her breath quickened with each step as she darted through the bustling, shadowy city streets.

4. Create sensory experiences

Using various senses—smell, taste, touch, sound and sight—will help you drill down into showing.

Remember, showing serves as a link between the readers’ perspective and the ongoing narrative. And one of the best ways to help readers experience a story is by providing sensory details that immerses them.

When to tell

There is always a place for telling. Novels have both, and you shouldn’t feel obliged to eradicate every piece of tell from your book.

Five years later, Michael was promoted to Director of Space Exploration and had built a team of twenty-two cadets from every corner of the universe.

This passage provides the necessary facts to move the story on, and it wasn’t essential to show the reader the last five years second by second. Instead, we can tell the reader and bring them up to speed. You don’t need to dramatise every event, only the scenes that matter.

Remember, this is not the only time you should tell. It can serve your story in various ways. The best way to know whether telling works is to pause on those long factual passages that have minimal descriptions or vivid imagery. Ask yourself, is this serving your story? Is it providing the necessary facts to move your story forward? Or, is it a significant event that the reader should see unfolding through descriptive language, moment by moment? Is it an opportunity to increase tension and capture the reader’s imagination?

Unleash your novel’s potential

Even experienced authors slip into telling. Naturally, we want readers to grasp our world and the characters within it from the first page. It can be tempting to provide them with all of the knowledge they need to understand the journey they’re about to set out on.

While telling has a place, you should strive to imbue your scenes with detail, colour and sensory information, allowing readers to fully experience your story.

Self-editing allows you to review those long factual passages, and turn telling into showing. Just follow the tips above to show not tell.

Looking for a helping hand? Good news—I can help. I’m a writer and editor, and I offer various editorial services that can help get your writing into its best shape. Find out more information on the Writing Hub.

Eira Edwards profile photo

Written By Eira Edwards

Eira is a writer and editor from the South of England with over five years of experience as a Content Manager, helping clients perfect their copy.

She has a degree in English Literature and Language, which she loves putting to work by working closely with fiction authors.

When she’s not working on manuscripts, you can find her in the woods with her partner and dog, or curling up with a good book.

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