Show, Don’t Tell: The Not-So-Secret Weapon of All Great Writers
Show, don’t tell is probably the most common piece of writing advice out there. And there’s a reason for it. It’s the single most powerful weapon in any writer’s arsenal. Wielded by a skilled writer, it can be used to create vivid settings, engage readers’ emotions, and bring characters to life.
Imagine the ability to transport your readers to bustling city streets, ancient mystical realms, or the depths of a character’s conflicted soul. There are no limits to the journeys on which you take readers, and by showing, not telling, you can completely immerse your readers in your story world.
In its essence, when people talk about show, not tell, they are encouraging you to go beyond simply telling readers what is happening or how characters feel. Instead, they are challenging you to show these things through vivid and sensory descriptions, compelling character actions, and immersive dialogue. In this way, readers get to experience the story firsthand.
Understanding “Show, Don’t Tell”
There is more to storytelling than just exposition. Exposition has its place, but a story won’t be compelling or engaging if it’s nothing but info dumps.
Rather than just stating what is happening in a scene or having your characters simply tell readers how they are feeling, you have the opportunity to show these aspects through vivid descriptions, engaging dialogue, and sensory details.
The key to show, don’t tell, lies in the power of immersion. When you “show” a reader what is happening, you actively involve them in the storytelling process. Instead of passively receiving information, they become active participants, engaging their senses, emotions, and imaginations to visualise the events and connect with the characters. You transport them into the heart of your story, allowing them to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch alongside your characters.
If you want your story to leave a mark, then your story needs to connect with readers emotionally.
Developing characters by showing, not telling
Characters are the lifeblood of any narrative. They are the way that readers connect and immerse themselves in the story. Showing, rather than telling your readers about your characters’ inner worlds, enables you to reveal their essence.
By showing your characters’ actions and behaviours, you provide tangible evidence of their personalities and motivations. For instance, rather than telling a reader that a character is brave, you can show them fearlessly stepping forward in the face of danger or making selfless sacrifices for others. These actions not only convey their bravery but also allow readers to witness it firsthand, forging a stronger emotional connection.
A character’s voice is also a great way to show their essence. Their choice of words, tone, and the subtext present in their exchanges can provide insights into their true feelings, desires, and conflicts. Combine this with body language and nonverbal cues, and you have a powerful mix. Instead of telling readers that a character is sad, you can show the way their voice and tone change based on their mood, illustrate a change in body language, like slumped shoulders or nervous shuffling, describe them visually, like showing a tear-streaked face or trembling hands, and show the way their emotional state changes their behaviour (for instance, a sad character may act in a more reckless manner, with less care for how dangerous something may be).
Creating Vivid Settings
Setting is the backdrop against which your story unfolds. It is the stage on which your characters move, breathe, and interact. A well-crafted setting goes beyond a description of what can be seen. It engages all the senses, to bring a sense of life into any story.
When describing a setting, consider the specific details that bring it to life. Instead of telling readers that a place is beautiful, show them the sun-kissed meadows, and describe the vibrant colours of wildflowers and the sound they make while swaying in the breeze. Engage readers’ senses by describing the scent of flowers in bloom, the feel of grass beneath their feet, or the distant sounds of chirping birds.
Incorporating the perspectives of your characters can also deepen the connection between readers and the world you’ve created. Show how the environment impacts their emotions, thoughts, and actions. Has heat made them thirsty? Does a specific sound remind them of something they experienced in childhood? By intertwining the setting with a character’s experiences, it helps readers connect with both the character and your world.
Five writing exercises to help you improve your skills
Like any part of the writing process, learning to show, not tell, is a skill that takes practice. I’ve put together five writing exercises that can help you develop this skill:
Using a random picture (it can be anything from a stock photo, your favourite painting, or a book cover you like), describe what it shows without explicitly stating what’s depicted.
This isn’t an easy task, but it’s a great challenge to get you to start describing things without stating the obvious. It’s a good way to practice giving readers a sense of things and really putting your imagination through its paces.
Let me give you an example:
With a regal bearing and a piercing green gaze, she stands before the void in feline judgement.
Choose a familiar setting, like a coffee shop, a park, or a favourite restaurant. Spend a few minutes observing your surroundings, paying close attention to the sensory details, then write a descriptive passage that never mentions exactly where you are.
Focus on sensory details and illustrate what is happening around you. Share this passage with someone who is also familiar with the place and see if they can tell where you’re writing about from description alone.
All about action
Take a character from one of your stories or create a new one. Write a scene where the character experiences a strong emotion, such as joy, anger, or fear. Without explicitly stating the emotion, write around it using action only.
You can use body language, facial expressions, and gestures but avoid using anything (synonyms, for example) that will give away the emotion. Show it to a trusted writing buddy and see if they can guess the emotion you’re trying to convey.
Talk it out
Write an exchange between two characters where they are having an emotionally charged moment. You can use a character you’ve created, or use two characters from a favourite book or TV show that you know well. As long as you have a good sense for who they are and their back story.
The exercise is to avoid directly stating the emotion each character is experiencing; instead, use tone of voice and word choice to illustrate their emotional state and convey their thoughts and emotions indirectly.
Narrate your day
This one is super fun, but be warned, if you do it in public, people will think you’re a little odd. I’ve done it before, and it resulted in some hilarious real-world interactions, but just be prepared. Some of you might prefer to only do this one when you’re alone.
The task for this is to narrate everything you do for a day. Using the recorder on your phone, dictate your actions, your thoughts, and your feelings. Going for a walk? Talk about where you’re going, what is around you, how things feel under your feet, and what the weather is like. What other things are you thinking about on the walk? How are you feeling? Not just in the moment, but what is going on in the back of your mind?
At the end of the day, listen back to everything you’ve narrated. Take note of what sticks out. When I did this exercise I found that the emotions I thought I might be feeling in any given moment were often not the ones that I was actually feeling. For instance, I’d spoken with my family earlier in the day and there was a sense of homesickness that wormed its way into every other moment of the day, from my interactions with others, to my mood before bed.
An exercise like this can really help show you how to use subtext to show, not tell.
Remember to approach these exercises with an open mind and a willingness to experiment. The goal is to practice and refine your ability to show rather than tell, not to generate a world-class piece of prose that you’d immediately want to include in your next project.