Show, don’t tell – what does it mean?
You don’t have to be a writer long to get the classic writing advice, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ lodged in your psyche. It’s normal to write first drafts packed with telling sentences like, ‘she was so angry she could burst,’ or ‘it was cold in the library,’ and to rewrite them many times until you find the perfect way to show what you’re trying to communicate. Fiction is very much about engagement, and it’s important that you leave room for the reader to interpret, to observe and understand what’s going on.
There is absolutely a time to show and a time to tell, but this blog post is for the moments when you know you need to show something but you’re not sure how. It’s also for those of you who’ve heard this advice but aren’t sure where in your work you’re going wrong.
For more on what ‘show, don’t tell’ actually means, check out this blog post from author and writing tutor Emma Darwin – Showing and Telling: the Basics. Ready to find some solutions? Here are ten ways to show rather than tell:
1. Favour strong verbs over adverbs.
Adverbs can bring an extra something to a sentence when the verb alone just won’t do, but often they’re a way of telling rather than showing. Telling: ‘Brent put his mug down angrily.’ Showing: ‘Brent slammed his mug down, his eyes glinting.’ The slam conveys anger, so the adverb is unnecessary. I added the detail about his eyes to enforce the emotion, but the action alone would convey it.
2. Evoke mood with atmospheric detail.
In real life, you’ll often walk into a new environment and get a sense of the mood without really being able to articulate what’s causing it, but in fiction you have to enable the reader to feel the mood, rather than telling them what it is. Telling: ‘Lisa entered the office and was immediately hit by an atmosphere of oppression.’ Showing: ‘Lisa passed through the glass doors, and the office hubbub gave her an immediate headache, the way the low drone in an aeroplane does – urgent chatter, pages printing, desperate coffee slurps. A man in pinstripes was over-gesticulating something to a pale woman around her age.’ Traditionally, writers have used the weather to evoke mood, but you want to get as specific as possible, using the texture of your story.
3. Describe body language.
Some of the most obvious tells are sentences about how a character feels. It’s a natural instinct to tell anything that goes beneath the surface of the story, but people do tend to show their emotions, if in subtle ways, and when it comes to non-perspective characters their physicality will be the best clue as to what they’re feeling. People rarely describe their emotions in simple terms – ‘that made me sad’; ‘I was so confused by that’. If you’re using a person’s dialogue to reveal what they’re feeling, you have to do so with a touch of avoidance: ‘“Yeah, I think when she said that I just wasn’t sure what to make of it.” “You went pretty quiet. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”‘ Whether a character is being open about their feelings or not, you can get it across using their body language, and this is especially helpful when your POV character is observing someone else. Telling: ‘Miles looked sad, like the light had left him.’ Showing: ‘Miles’s eyes lost focus for a few seconds, and I looked away. When I glanced back, he was laughing at the tutor’s joke but without making much noise.’
4. Include anecdotes to reveal the nature of a character’s past.
The instinct to tell a reader about a character’s background rather than writing lengthy backstory is a good one, but you can still show without jumping into a flashback. Telling: ‘Growing up, Nadiya had been made to feel unintelligent and inferior. She learnt to avoid any situation where she could be compared.’ Showing: ‘When Nadiya was eight, her teacher would hand back marked exam papers from the lowest score to the highest, and he always gave hers back first, even if she’d tied with other students. She’d opened her GCSE results in a loo cubicle and even now she wouldn’t go to a pub quiz.’
5. Utilise dialogue for exposition.
Exposition is one area where a lot of telling goes on. You’re told to ‘signpost’, to help the reader understand exactly where they are and what’s going on in the first pages of the novel, whilst sharing any context relevant to the incoming story. But if you tell too much of this, rather than showing it, the reader will be aware of being told a story, rather than feeling absorbed in the character’s world. One way to subtly get exposition in there is to use dialogue. Telling: ‘Amanda took her seat. It was only the third year female students had been admitted to Highwalden.’ Showing: ‘As Amanda sat, a girl in a bright red blazer turned from the row in front. “Gosh, there aren’t many of us, are there?” Amanda glanced around. “I guess it’s only the third year they’ve taken girls,” she replied.’
6. Use setting-specific physical details and references to historical events.
In historical fiction, you might share the setting and year in a heading. ‘Marseilles, 1941.‘ In contemporary fiction or novels on the cusp, it’s not standard to do this, but you still need to get the setting across, ideally on the first page. Sometimes, the issue is that writers fail to do this at all, but often it’s that they do it in an unnatural way. Telling: ‘Faraz moved to Fulham ten years ago, in 2004.’ Showing: ‘Faraz passes The Fulham Mitre, where a group of young mums are drinking G&Ts out of those fishbowl glasses and discussing the ban on fox hunting.’
7. Depict people-watching.
I usually use this as a last resort, but if there’s something you want to tell the reader about your protagonist and it’s not naturally fitting in, you can often show it while they watch other characters. If they’re lonely, it only takes a moment watching a group of friends to get this across. If they’re feeling insecure about their appearance, describe the way they fiddle with their hair or the corners of their eyes as they watch someone with the appearance they long for. Whatever the protagonist is lacking, give it to the person they’re observing. Just make sure you leave it at the observation and body language. If you then write, ‘he wished he could be that confident,’ or something along those lines, you’re telling what you’ve already shown.
8. Launch into direct internal thought.
Writing what your protagonist is thinking about is telling, but writing your protagonist’s thoughts can be a way of showing, so it’s usually best to delve straight into the thoughts. Writers often feel the need to start with a kind of broad summary: ‘Piotr looked down at his plate. He started to think about the restaurant and how sick being a chef could make you.’ Showing: ‘Piotr looked down at his plate but felt no appetite. He should quit his job – he should just do it. He’d been sworn at about fifty times over six shifts in the restaurant that week, and even this restaurant, where no-one knew he was a chef, made him feel sick.’
9. Swap adjectives for revealing details.
When you learn creative writing as a child, you’re taught to describe characters using adjectives, then perhaps to tack on hair and eye colour, but this is effectively telling, and if you study creative writing as an adult, they usually start with some unlearning! Telling: ‘Lucinda is caring and meticulous, with chestnut hair and green eyes.’ Showing: ‘Lucinda is one of those people who rinses out each item and scrubs the sticker off before recycling in separate boxes. She ties her thick hair in a low bun and searches the general waste bin for her housemate’s takeaway tubs.’ This sentence reveals her caring and meticulous sides through one of her habits and fits some description of her appearance into the action.
10. Do nothing – trust the reader to interpret what you’ve already expressed.
If you’ve received feedback on a work-in-progress and someone has marked a sentence with the comment ‘show, don’t tell,’ it’s worth checking if you have already provided a show. If you’ve written, ‘I decided not to push her to sign up for a Boots advantage card and gave her the change with a warm smile. I wanted her to like me,’ you can just cut ‘I wanted her to like me,’ rather than swapping it for another show. Many writers have a habit of showing and telling at the same time. Readers don’t want to be told too much, but they also don’t want to be shown and shown until something’s blatantly obvious – let them read into the hints you’ve already laid and get a sense of satisfaction as they realise they’ve understood what’s going on beneath the surface.
I like to think of a ‘show, don’t tell’ comment as an opportunity to get my unique voice into the text. Showing brings the reader closer into the scene and the story, and it enables them to see the world through another distinctive viewpoint.
It can be helpful to have someone identify instances of telling that should be showing in your work-in-progress – if you’re interested in working with one of our editors, you can find out more here.