Show, Don’t Tell – Part One

Boy and FrogMany aspiring writers hear this phrase often – “Show, don’t tell,” and rightly so. It is one of the most important, perhaps the most important lesson we learn.

“Show, don’t tell” means to provide visual images of what you’re trying to describe instead of simply telling a fact in a way that provides no visuals.

For example, the boy in the picture is showing the class his frog. If another student simply told the class about his frog, which presentation would be more vivid and interesting? The one that shows the frog, of course.

Here is a list of some differences between Telling and Showing:

  1. Telling describes emotions, attitudes, and objects. Showing brings them to life.
  2. Telling is usually a summary description provided by a narrator. Showing is real-time description that makes the reader feel present in the scene.
  3. Telling usually fails to paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. Showing provides precise pictures.
  4. Telling often uses vague adjectives that a reader can misinterpret. Showing creates adjectives in a reader’s thoughts.
  5. Telling often fails to incite emotion in a reader. Showing provides real-time emotions of the characters in a way that provokes similar emotions in the reader.

For example, here is a “telling” summary of a job interview:

Lindsey answered her job interview questions with a confident attitude and informal flair, thinking that such familiarity would endear her to Mr. Dawson, though he thought she was overconfident and ignorant.

This summary is accurate, but does it seem vivid to you? Did it create visual imagery in your mind? Likely not.

Here is another account of the same interview using the “show” method:

Mr. Dawson folded his hands on the desk and peered at Lindsey through thick glasses. “What experience have you had in video editing?”

“Lots.” While Lindsey smacked her chewing gum, she spread out her fingers and gazed at her black nail polish. “I edited bunches of videos for our high school band and track team. Everyone says I’m the best.”

“I see.” He cleared his throat. “And who is included in ‘everyone’?”

“Oh, my friends, the track coach, my mom.” She winked. “You know, the important people.”

Mr. Dawson smiled with tight lips. “Well, I think a video professional might be more important. Has your work been recognized by anyone in the industry?”

“Sure.” She rolled her eyes upward. “I think his name is Ed.”

He blinked at her. “Ed?”

“Right. The clerk at the video rental store.”

Could you “see” this account better? I trust that you could.

“Showing” is usually provided in a real-time way, that is, as it happened, as if readers are there witnessing the account moment by moment. Telling usually feels like a summary after the fact.

It’s important to understand that “showing” is not always the better choice. If you want to quickly summarize a series of events and move on, it is better to tell. You won’t create visuals or provoke emotions, but that might not be your goal. I will provide some specific reasons for “telling” along with examples in a future post.

As I mentioned above, “telling” often uses adjectives that might not provide specific pictures, while showing gives precise visuals. Here is an example:

The dog was pitiful, helpless, too crippled to hunt for food.

Pitiful, helpless, and crippled are grammatically correct adjectives, and readers will probably conjure images based on the adjectives, but those images might not match the writer’s vision. They won’t invade the reader’s imagination to paint a precise portrait. Also, “dog” is vague. A good writer will be more specific.

Here is a “show” version of the same account:

The golden retriever clawed at his flank, scraping hair from his mangy coat. After licking the wound, he struggled into a hobbling gait. With every stride, he hopped to favor a mangled back leg. In the distance, a squirrel sitting atop a fallen log stared at him. It chittered, then pranced away without looking back.

The second version is far more vivid, because it shows what pitiful looks like. It shows what helpless and unable to hunt for food means in a visual way.

In other words, instead of telling “pitiful,” a writer’s goal is to cause the reader to conclude that the dog is pitiful. The same is true with the other adjectives. Draw that adjective from the reader’s mind as a conclusion based on images instead of planting the word itself. This method will create sympathetic emotions instead of merely an academic understanding.

I will continue this topic in the next tip. If you have any questions or comments, please post them.



Categories: Writing Tips

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11 replies

  1. Thank you for the tips!
    I’m looking forward to your later post about when telling is appropriate- I want to make sure I’m using it correctly in my stories and not just being lazy about it.

  2. This is great! It’s really helpful to see some examples of the differences between the two. I often catch myself telling when I could show.
    I cannot wait to see some examples of when to tell instead.

  3. Thanks for the tips! Love the picture. Where do you find those?

  4. Alright! Thanks for the tips, Mr. Davis! That was an interesting point of wanting to draw the adjective out of the readers mind instead of planting it there.
    Can’t wait to hear more on this subject! 😀

  5. When does showing, become too much description?



  1. Show, Don’t Tell – Part Three | The Author's Chair
  2. Show, Don’t Tell – Part Three |

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