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The Dreaded and Amazing: “Show, Don’t Tell”

Pretty much every writer nowadays has heard the phrase: Show, don’t tell. It can crop up anywhere, from any writer, on the side of your work in red ink. If you have been writing for a while, you’ll know what it means and may even begrudgingly agree with the comment. However, if you are new to writing, you may not understand what the other person is talking about.

This concept is a pretty big deal in modern writing. Gone are the days when most readers were comfortable with a narrator telling them everything they needed to know. This is why older stories, such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even Murder on the Orient Express, can come across as boring to modern readers.

In stories like these, more often than not, the narrator mostly sits around and talks about the story rather than going out and living the story. These tales are a lot like sitting down with a friend after dinner and them telling you about something exciting that happened to them, which isn’t so bad in person, but in writing it’s a bit dull.

Now compare that to more modern stories where you directly follow the character as their story unfolds. When they look for clues to the murder mystery, you are right beside them, discovering information as they do.

Nowadays, readers prefer to have a word picture painted in their minds with descriptive sentences that don’t tell them what they are seeing but help show them the fictional world they are exploring. They also want to learn about the characters for themselves, not have someone tell them about how a character behaves.

This all sounds weird when you think of the perspective of a story, where you are technically always being told information, but there’s a subtle art to it that does make sense, I swear.

Use It to Describe Scenery

The first thing new writers will think of with the rule of show, don’t tell is pretty much always scenery. After all, the scenes in a story are the things readers will visually “see” the most of.

Showing a scene instead of telling it involves a lot of allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions. Anton Chekhov is quoted as saying: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass.”

Basically, instead of saying it’s raining, you can mention the patter of water against the windows, the chill in the air, and the smell of petrichor (That smell that always comes out when it rains after a long dry spell.) drifting in through the windows.

Instead of saying it's freezing, you could mention how a character’s breath is forming a cloud each time they exhale. Mention the frost on the ground, or the way ice clings to the shadows. Have the character shiver and pull their clothes tighter.

Little clues like these allow the reader to see it’s raining or freezing without directly telling them. The reader is able to use the clues you gave them to come to their own conclusion on what the scene looks like.

Hearing it like this, the concept makes sense. Now it’s just a matter of learning to apply it, which is something I still struggle with from time to time. Let’s face it, telling someone something is a heck of a lot easier than showing them.

And despite the description of show don’t tell given by Chekhov, it is not purely about settings. The concept applies to more of the story than many new authors realize.

It Works for Characters Too

More often than not, this rule applies to characters too. Both a character's appearance and personality can be described through showing rather than telling.

Don’t tell your readers that your character is nice, have them jump into a fight to defend a loved one. Have the character do everything they can to help a stranger. Show the character recognizing that a friend is hurting through their simple actions.

Don’t tell your readers a character’s description, have the character compare themselves to someone else. Your character can note how the other person is taller than them, has darker hair, or is more muscled. This is especially useful because you get two character descriptions for the price of one.

By using tricks like this, your readers won’t feel like they are getting a lecture on who a character is and what they look like. Instead, the readers will see the character for who they are, as if they actually met them.

The Problem with Telling

Often with telling, the writer gets bogged down with providing information. Telling is passive and is focused on sharing information. Showing remains focused on the scene, which helps keep the story moving at a decent pace.

As I mentioned earlier, books that rely on telling are usually seen as boring. This is because scenes that have too much telling focus on nothing physically happening. Which would you rather read about, two men sitting around a table talking about a horrible crime they witnessed, or the men actually getting involved and searching for clues to solve said crime?

Telling a story is a slow process and a lot of the action gets diluted because it isn’t happening as the reader reads along. Instead, it happened before and now a character or narrator is telling the reader all of the information rather than letting them figure it out for themselves.

The Problem with Showing

While showing is the preferred method of storytelling these days, it isn’t perfect either. As with everything in life, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Everyone has read a story where the descriptions just went on for pages and pages. The words may have painted beautiful images, but they took too long to do so.

When you are describing something, you are pressing pause on the story and its plot to fill the reader in on something you’re deeming important. Nothing can get moving again until the descriptions are finished.

When that happens, people skim through the writing, looking for the end of the description because they just want the plot to progress.

The Secret Is Balance

Of course, as with many things in life, there is a balancing act with show don’t tell. If you tried to show every detail in a story, you’d likely bog it down with too much information. Description is great, but it slows down the pace of a story, and if there is too much of it, readers will get bored. When that happens, readers will either skim or even worse, set down the book entirely. No author wants that.

The same can be said for too much telling, which can quickly become an info dump. If you spend too much time trying to tell readers about every little piece of information about something, then they will get bored as well.

Showing is often the preferred method of story-telling these days, but that doesn’t mean you show everything. Sometimes the showing will take too long and you just need a quick summary. You need a mix of both showing and telling to write an effective story. Your characters can’t just continually race off to their goal. Sometimes they need to sit and catch their breath. The same is true for your readers. You need a mix of ups and downs, highs and lows, showing and telling to write a good story that keeps your readers engaged and interested.

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