‘Show, don’t tell’ is something every aspiring author has heard or read at some point. It’s true that telling the reader about your characters’ acts and emotions or your settings is often weaker than showing them. Read examples from books that put ‘show, don’t tell’ in context and reveal how to blend showing and telling effectively:
How does ‘showing’ differ from ‘telling’?
In storytelling, both telling and showing are necessary. For a cohesive story, we sometimes need to know how characters got from A to B to C. Yet we don’t necessarily need to see every minute detail. Contrary to the popular advice, sometimes telling is fine. For example, an author could write:
‘Sarah locked her front door, and, glancing at her watch, saw she was late for her train. She broke into a sprint and arrived four minutes later, out of breath, as the train pulled away.’
Perhaps the reader doesn’t need so much detail about the mundane activity of catching a train. If we rewrote this same example of ‘showing’ as expository ‘telling’:
‘That morning, Sarah had sprinted for the train but arrived seconds too late.’
This telling simplifies, moving the story along quickly to the next piece of information. ‘That morning’ implies that the event precedes a more important piece of information (the consequences of Sarah’s lateness, for example). Instead of dwelling on the cause, compact expository telling of this type catapults us towards the crucial effect the cause produces. The cause is not the main event.
This example gives us useful show don’t tell tips:
- Telling has its place – use it to give the reader secondary information such as how a character gets from A to B. Unless something crucial happens to your character during her journey, the reader doesn’t need every detail of her commute.
- Keep the detail of showing for scenes that deepen characterization or reveal significant turns of plot.
Here are show don’t tell examples from books that illustrate how to balance the two in your own writing:
1: Blend showing and telling for character backstory
It’s not always best to show and not tell. Take backstory, for example. Characters who have history feel more vivid and real to us.
If you followed the advice to the letter and gave your character’s formative years in minute, showing detail, this information could take up so much of your story that it outweighs the present time of your main story arc.
Discretion and balance is key. E. Annie Proulx, in her novel The Shipping News blends telling and showing expertly when she introduces her protagonist, Quoyle:
‘Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.’ (p. 1)
Proulx starts with plain telling to introduce the story. Yet she shifts quickly after this first line into descriptive backstory that blends telling about Quoyle’s early years with details about his character:
‘Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.’ (p. 1)
Note how Proulx blends telling us about long-range character experiences (‘he survived childhood’) with small physical and emotional details about Quoyle. We know he had hives. We form a sense of Quoyle’s lived, bodily reality when Proulx describes his ‘gas and cramps’. Proulx also describes a character tic that she later expands on – how Quoyle claps his hand over his chin. This tic is due to embarrassment (we learn later) about its size – a genetic inheritance.
This character introduction is more striking than if Proulx had continued with telling like her first sentence. For example:
‘Quoyle had a weak digestive system but got through childhood despite it. He was embarassed by his chin, solving his embarassment by hiding it with his hand.’
The problem with this version is that it creates distance – we hear about Quoyle, but don’t see him clapping his hand over his chin. We don’t feel the character’s rumbling cramps with as much empathy as when we read ‘gut roaring with gas and cramp’.
This blending works because we see the character’s unique individuality. Proulx shows us Quoyle’s behaviour in specific moments, along with the broader sweep of his childhood.
2: Show the reader your settings (don’t just tell)
Setting description is another area where you may be tempted to tell the reader more than show. Yet setting is a visual element of story. We need to be able to see it.
What makes Tolkien’s Mordor so real in his Lord of the Rings cycle is its sulfurous pits and gloomy, dark detail:
‘The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.’
In this passage from The Two Towers, Tolkien creates a visceral sense of Mordor as a place. Tolkien shows us Mordor using sound (the ‘gasping’ pools), colour (‘sickly white’, ‘poison-stained’) and motion (‘crawling muds’). The atmosphere of death and decay permeates everything, even in how the rock structures resemble a graveyard.
This showing makes Mordor a visceral place of foreboding and ominous danger. The actions associated with the surrounds are violent and negative, from the mountains ‘vomitting’ their entrails onto the lands to the light’s ‘reluctance’.
This passage wouldn’t be nearly as effective merely told. Tolkien could have written:
‘Frodo was horrified by the landscape – every rock formation reminded him of gravestones and there were foul smells and eerie sights at every turn.’
In this case, we lose the specificity, the detail and the power of Tolkien’s clearly visualized setting. The description is too general and vague. To show settings clearly, like Tolkien:
- Use the senses – sound, smell, sight. How do the senses combine to give a setting its atmosphere?
- Use comparison and metaphor: Tolkien personifies the light as reluctant and unwilling. This is an effective example of showing using metaphorical language
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3: Show characters’ relationships through dialogue
Dialogue is a vital and useful tool to show how your characters feel about and interact with one another.
For example, Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times opens with the pompous and narrow-minded teacher Thomas Gradgrind, a ‘man of realities’, lecturing his students. Gradgrind is described with short, compact and informative telling at first:
‘A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four …’ (p. 1)
In his story opening, Dickens deftly moves to dialogue that shows Gradgrind’s ‘by-the-rules’, bullish character. Gradgrind interrogates one of his pupils:
‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’
‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’
‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey. (p. 1-2)
In how Gradgrind addresses Sissy, Dickens shows us the traits described in the first introduction. For Gradgrind, there is ‘correct’ way to act and this is reflected in his quibbling over Sissy Jupe’s name. His ‘squareness’ is further emphasized in how he points ‘squarely’ with his ‘square forefinger’.
The way Gradgrind bullishly reduces Sissy to trembling shows his personality – a bullying, forceful nature that is important for further plot developments in the story.
Dickens thus uses dialogue to show just how inflexible his character is, and uses physical description and gesture (the square pointing). He also shows how his students fear (rather than revere) their teacher, building a clear sense of the relationship between teacher and pupils.
4: Show the universal through the specific and particular
The Nobel-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska ran an advice column. She once told an aspiring author who’d used abstract terms such as ‘freedom’ in his writing the following:
‘You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime: ‘Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.’
The problem with universal concepts such as ‘freedom’ is exactly what Szymborska describes. The word ‘freedom’ alone is a vague concept. The word itself doesn’t begin to convey the vast complexity of the idea. Instead of saying that a character ‘is free’, show your character behaving in a way that only freedom would allow.
George Orwell illustrates how to show a general idea (in this case ‘imprisonment’ and ‘suffering’) with specific detail. Read this example from his famous work about totalitarian government, 1984:
‘To turn his head and look at her would have been inconceivable folly. With hands locked together, invisible among the press of bodies, they stared steadily in front of them, and instead of the eyes of the girl, the eyes of the aged prisoner gazed mournfully at Winston out of nests of hair.’
Orwell shows how an act as simple as looking at another person is impossible for Winston in a country with no freedom. By focusing on the physical, embodied constraints (‘hands locked together’, ‘among the press of bodies’) Orwell creates a sense of how degrading and psychologically and physically uncomfortable it is to be denied basic freedom.
Using the gaze and his characters’ eyes, Orwell reveals more than if he were to say ‘Winston longed for the freedom to gaze at whomever he pleased.’
5: How to show, not tell: Ask yourself about the purpose of each scene
To make sure your writing always shows the reader the important things, every time you sit down to write a scene ask yourself ‘what’s important here?’
If the scene is supposed to show how your character overcomes her crippling fear of snakes, for example, don’t just tell the reader this happened. Show the exact encounter or process that led to this change. Effects without causes tell us what happened, but they don’t give us the juiciest part of storytelling – the reasons why.
Read more about descriptive writing in our complete guide to description.
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