If you’ve been a writer for any length of time—by which we mean someone who writes, even if they’ve not yet been published—you’ve probably heard the rule “show, don’t tell.” It’s good writing advice, but it also tends to get bandied about so much that its meaning can become muddied and unclear, especially for new writers.
If you’ve been accused of the grievous sin of “telling” your writing, and you’re not quite sure how to apply this oft-repeated golden rule to your work, we’re here for you.
Let’s take a closer look at what “show, don’t tell” really means, when and when not to apply it, and some tricks to master one of the most essential writing skills in your toolbox.
What does “show, don’t tell” mean in creative writing?
“Show, don’t tell” is using descriptive language to allow your reader to experience the story world, rather than explaining it to them with exposition. For example, saying a room was cold is “telling.” Mentioning the frost on a windowpane or the thick socks your characters wear is “showing” the cold, but without saying it.
The concept as we know it today is believed to originate from a famous quote by Anton Chekhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
It’s so famous that you’ve probably come across it before. But! This widely circulated maxim is actually a condensed idea from a letter Chekhov wrote to his brother in 1886 about the writing process. Here’s the original quote:
In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.
Which, admittedly, doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker quite as nicely. But, it does highlight the importance of using small, specific details to lead the reader into your world. We’ll talk more about the importance of sensory details in “showing” a story down below.
“Telling” readers is a better process when you’re trying to communicate objective, impersonal information; “showing” is best when you want your readers to directly experience a character’s emotions as they follow the events of the plot.
Why is “showing” important in a story?
When you use vivid details to show what’s happening in your story, you close the gap between the story and your readers. Incorporating showing into your writing technique moves the plot from feeling like a third-hand account to something the reader is living, seeing, breathing in real time.
Here’s an example of “show, don’t tell”:
Telling: He deceived his mother into letting him stay home sick.
Showing: He ran into the bathroom and splashed water on his forehead so it would look like he was sweating. Then he jumped back into bed, roughly cleared his throat a few times to give it the right amount of croak, and pulled the blankets up up to his nose. “I don’t feel wellllll!” he wailed.
It’s exactly the same scene. The difference is that in the first example, the reader is being given an objective piece of information. They might believe you, but they don’t feel it. In the second example, the body language and specific details bring the main character and their objective to life. The reader can see it happening in their minds. This is the power of “show, don’t tell.”
Using this writing rule will help you develop characters with more dimension and ensure your readers don’t lose interest as they explore your story.
Examples of “telling” in a story
Here are a few other examples of what telling looks like within a narrative:
He ran into his ex on his way to the post office.
She saw the candle catch the corner of the bedspread and quickly snuffed it out.
Little Women was her all-time favorite book.
They turned back around to go to the supermarket, because they realized they were out of food.
He felt colder and colder as he trudged towards the cabin.
Each of these snapshots in time could be fleshed out into an entire scene or scene beat that reveals more depth about each of these characters. How does the man feel when he runs into his ex? Hopeful, angry, self-conscious, astonished? Why is Little Women her favorite book? Is it a particular character, scene, or a memory shared with someone who read it to her? How does the cold feel as the man walks up the hill? How is his body reacting, what sort of thoughts are going through his head?
While you don’t need to “show” every single moment throughout your narrative, it’s worth paying attention and considering whether or not “telling” is a missed opportunity to explore more nuances in your story world.
Can you both show and tell?
You hear “show, don’t tell” all the time in creative writing, but is it possible to do both? Yes! Showing and telling is a balancing act, and master writers know that too much of either can drag your story down.
“Showing” a story brings immediacy, intimacy, and urgency to a scene, but if you’re doing nothing but showing every single moment, you end up with a sprawling epic told in real time à la James Joyce (his magnum opus Ulysses is around 800 pages, and considered one of the most challenging novels in the English language). Too much show can lead to an unnecessarily high word count that doesn’t actually contribute to or strengthen your story.
Instead, pick pivotal moments where your protagonist is experiencing something new or important, where your plot is moving from one place to another, or where your characters are reaching a point of dynamic change. Then show those moments in vibrant, gut-wrenching detail. It’s okay to use telling to string those important beats together.
We’ll take a closer look at when to use showing and when to use telling a bit further on in this article.
Line-level showing vs. story-level showing
Most examples of “show don’t tell” you come across will illustrate this writing technique at the line level—like the example of the duplicitous child we look at above. This means taking a single moment, like “He deceived his mother into letting him stay home sick,” and turning that into a more powerful, lifelike scene.
However, showing details about plot, setting, or fictional characters can sprawl across the entire breadth of your story, too. This means that rather than showing a key trait or plot point in one moment, you find ways to incorporate it across the entire story arc.
Here’s an example of story-level “show, don’t tell”:
Telling: She was a bad mother.
Showing: Electricity bills left unpaid on the table, a child waiting at the school gates because they’ve been forgotten, looking through cupboards and finding nothing to eat, hiding in their room while their mother has a hangover, other parents noticing the child’s clothes are too small.
You don’t have to show a detail in just one scene to have a great story. You can set down the groundwork one layer at a time, letting your readers come to their own conclusions about what’s happening.
Ways to show in your story
Let’s look at how to describe action, emotion, and other important details in ways that will enhance your readers’ experience of your story (and create stronger writing, too).
Your story’s setting is a great place to utilize vivid details that use all five senses. Chekhov used setting to show his story in the letter we looked at earlier.
Think about the way your characters experience and interact with the world around them. How do these settings contrast each other, or change over time?
For example, saying your characters walk into a creepy old house is “telling.” Consider: what’s creepy about it? What’s making them feel this way? Instead of telling the reader it’s creepy and old, let them hear the creak of floorboards that haven’t been walked on in a long time, smell the blend of dust and mildew, see the peeling wallpaper that’s almost entirely bleached of color, feel the brush of years-old spiderwebs catching against the character’s face.
Setting is a rich source of scene-level intensity for the writer, and if you tell your reader “they walked into a creepy old house,” you’re robbing them—and yourself—of details that bring the story to life.
Good news, though! We’ve put together an entire lesson on creating story settings just for you.
The way a character speaks can reveal a lot about them without having to lay it out for the reader. Think about their word choices—are they formal, casual, contemporary, antiquated? Do they speak in long sentences with colorful adjectives, or in short, staccato bursts?
Instead of telling the reader a character was uneducated, intellectual, impatient, long winded, or nervous, you can use their speech mannerisms to portray this in a subtler way. This allows the idea to take shape more naturally in the reader’s mind.
To dive into using dialogue for characterization, you can check out our lesson on diction and dialect here.
When you’re trying to “show, don’t tell” in your own writing, specificity—using a close-up lens into your scene—will make all the difference.
In the example of setting we looked at above, we brought our wide-lens description—a creepy old house—down to a close-up lens: wallpaper, floorboards, spider’s webs. By bringing your story’s perspective in closer, you’re bringing the reader in closer too.
Specificity is great for setting, but you can use it for other aspects of your novel or short story too, like physicality. Instead of telling the reader “he was exhausted,” bring your lens in closer and look at the character’s body language and physical reactions to their environment. Show the way his feet begin to drag against the pavement, the dark shadows under his eyes, the slight delay in answering questions, the concentrated effort he exerts for even the simplest movements.
Remember to engage with all the senses. Using specific, sensory details and strong verbs will make your stories seem more urgent and lifelike (the practice will also make you a better writer).
Use the active voice
Knowing the difference between active and passive voice is an important step in making your writing feel alive. When a narrative uses the active voice, it describes someone doing something: “She yelled at him.” In the passive voice, someone is having something done in their general direction: “He was yelled at by her.”
Very often, when a writer begins “telling” their characters’ actions, they slip into the passive voice. Try to keep an eye on this habit and use active writing wherever you can. You can learn more about these two narrative styles in our lesson on active and passive voice.
Avoid filtering words
Filtering is a sure sign of “telling” a story rather than “showing” it. Filtering means using sensory descriptors that describe the way a character’s emotions manifest, rather than allowing the reader to experience them on the page. Like the “wide lens,” this keeps your readers at a distance from the action of the story.
Filtering words are things like “He felt,” “She saw,” “They noticed.” These are all weak verbs that dispassionately explain what’s happening.
Instead of saying, “He felt the temperature in the room drop,” why not say, “The temperature in the room dropped.” Or instead of “She saw a great mountain rise up on the horizon,” try “A great mountain rose up on the horizon.”
Using strong verbs and keeping the action at the forefront—rather than buried behind a character’s description—will help you “show” your story in a more immediate way. This helps the reader imagine themselves inside your story.
Is showing always better than telling?
We hear “show, don’t tell” so often that it begins to sound like gospel. But is it always the better option?
Showing and telling is all about finding the right balance. Often, showing a story will make it feel more real and immersive to your readers—but sometimes, telling can help move the story along, keep your pace and rhythm from dragging, and avoid filling up your word count with unnecessary fluff.
Here are a few writing tips on when to use show and tell in your own writing.
When to show in a story
When introducing a new location
When introducing a new character
At pivotal revelations
When showing how a character reacts to a new piece of information
When highlighting the relationship between two characters
At key plot points upon which your story hangs
When to tell in a story
When travelling from one place to another
For quick, necessary exposition
When you need to move along the scene quickly
When a character is rushing through their motions
These are just a few guidelines. Remember: the rule is you should always try to show your story, rather than telling it, unless showing slows down your story too much and gives the reader excess information they don’t need.
Telling in Creative writing vs. academic writing
“Show, don’t tell” is considered the golden rule of creative writing—that is, narrative writing, or writing that tells a story, whether that’s fiction or a non-fiction account. But is it a rule for other types of writing?
In non-fiction academic or scientific writing, you’ll often find more “telling” because you’re attempting to recount a series of facts. Rather than describing the symptoms of an illness and the way certain lives were affected, the way you would in a narrative story, a medical journal will usually offer a series of statistics and figures to portray this information.
If you were taking this same information and adapting it to a short story or novel, you would instead use a writing style that explores the humanity behind the facts in order to give the story life in the reader’s mind.
Examples of showing from literature
To see this creative writing rule in practice, let’s look at a few examples from writers who have mastered the art of “show, don’t tell.”
Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
I can remember my father, but only in snatches. A smell of moths and tobacco from his big old coat. The Jerusalem artichokes he alone liked, and which we all had to eat once a week. How I’d once accidentally sun a fish-hook through the web by part of my hand, between finger and thumb, and his arms around me, his voice telling me to be brave.
In this excerpt, the narrator uses a few specific, well-placed sensory details to convey the relationship they had with their father. They use an intimate lens to explore scent, taste, touch, and sound all in just a few sentences. Even though the man is not around anymore, the reader feels as though they have a clear picture of what he was like.
Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over one shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I thought she probably gave to all her subjects, as if to say: you’re no ordinary subject to me, you’re a special favorite. I knew I would enviously practice this smile later in a mirror.
The final “punchline” of this excerpt reveals worlds about the narrator in a subtle, fluid way. Rather than saying, “I was insecure and sought to emulate the charm and adaptability of others,” the author included a small, vivid action that communicated a much deeper truth.
Jackaby, by William Ritter
The guard opened it a crack and then quickly stepped aside, letting it swing wide. Commissioner Swift stood in the hall, looking thoroughly out of place in the plain, practical quarters of the police station. He wore the same expensive black coat with red trim and matching rosy derby.
In real time this moment only takes a couple breaths, but there’s a lot going on in it. The physical details portrayed in the guard’s reaction show the status and privilege this new character has in the scene. The narrator juxtaposes the practicality of the setting with the ostentation of the commissioner’s clothes. Very quickly we learn that this is a figurehead, and their unusual presence there means the plot has quickly escalated.
The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
It was, she was convinced, the best song she had ever written. And—more than that—it was a happy song to reflect her optimism at that point in her life. It was a song inspired by her new life with Dan. And he had listened to it with a shruggish indifference that had hurt at the time and which she would have addressed if it hadn’t been his birthday.
In this excerpt, the narrator zooms in on a single, visceral memory. The moment begins with a happy, victorious, hopeful state of mind and descends into a confused sense of betrayal. The narrator doesn’t have to explain that their relationship was unbalanced or that they were setting themselves up to get hurt—the reader experiences this sensation right beside them in the moment.
Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden
I rose and went to the bathroom, taking the radio with me. Even though here too Molly had urged me to make free with what was available, I didn’t use any of her rose-scented bath oil in its bottle of smoked glass, the label hand-written in French.
This moment uses a close-up lens, moving from the view of the bathroom all the way to the tiny writing on a fancy label. These details reveal a lot about “Molly,” who is not present, and about the narrator who is staying in her home. By highlighting small sensory details of sight and smell, the author communicates broader characterization in both the main character and the relationship between the two characters.
Three prompts to practice showing in your writing
To practice “show, don’t tell” in your own work, try a writing exercise that encourages you to use sensory details, strong verbs, and a close-up story lens. Here are a few ideas.
First, look at the example of “telling” a moment in a story. Then, see if you can break down what’s actually happening in that moment. What physical or emotional sensations are going through these characters? What sounds, sights, smells, or textures are they experiencing?
Try writing out three to four sentences “showing” the character’s experience. See how much information you can convey by using subtext, body language, and “zooming in” on the snapshot in time.
Telling: “I tripped on the front steps on my very first day of school.”
Telling: “She silently apologized by making him his favorite meal.”
Telling: “Watching them from the corner of his eye, he could tell they’d met before.”
Learning to “show, don’t tell” will make you a better writer
Learning the difference between showing versus telling will make an enormous difference when it comes to planting big ideas in your readers’ minds. As an essential tool in your creative writing toolbox, “showing” your story with strong verbs and vivid details will help you develop characters, settings, and story arcs in a much more resonant way.