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  • Writer's pictureAmy Guan

Show, Don't Tell—A Quick Overview

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Let readers come to their own conclusions; don't just give them an analysis.


The Short Story


Show, don’t tell is a writing technique that lets readers come to their own conclusions rather than simply reading the author’s own analysis.

Showing is using senses, feelings, thoughts, and actions to help a reader fully experience the story.

Ex: The kitchen was dirty.


Telling is using exposition, summarization, and description to form a narrative.

Ex: Plates stained with yesterday’s mac and cheese were stacked precariously on top of the counter littered with crumbs and bacon bits.


Show, don’t tell adds flavor to the narrative.


The Novel

When we tell rather than show, we are simply giving your reader information.


Ex: She is angry.


Ex: It’s cold outside.


Ex: The path looks dangerous.


That’s telling.


Showing paints a picture for the reader to see in his or her mind’s eye. Showing also makes your statements and characters more believable.

We can easily change a telling example to a showing example by asking questions.


Let’s look at the telling examples above and change them into showing examples.


 

Ex: She is angry.

How does your character act when they are angry? Does she feel a rage boiling up inside that threatens to spill out? Do her lips form a hard line and her cheeks break out in pink spots?


Ex: She clenched her fists and a flame of red flashed across her face.


 

Ex: It's cold outside.


If it’s cold outside, how cold is cold? Is it a biting chill that sends barbs up our noses when we breathe?


Ex: The trees were heavy with snow. Branches creaked with the weight of each additional snowflake.


 

Ex: The path looks dangerous.


How do we know the path looks dangerous? Is it covered with shade from trees and wrinkled with sharp rocks?


Ex: He carefully eyed the path, if you could call it a path at all. Few people had ventured this way. Sagebrush and bulky rocks jutted out in every direction.


 

When we show, we don’t have to tell.

When we show, we are creating a vivid and comprehensive story for the reader to believe and enjoy.



The Examples


“Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country.
“His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.”

(Mbue, Imbolo. Behold the Dreamers: A Novel. 4th Estate, 2017.)


In her book Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue shows Jende is nervous about a job interview by focusing on his thoughts and physical symptoms. Mbue doesn’t merely tell readers “Jende is nervous.”



“‘We had another shoplifter today,’ [Frank] said, apropos of not very much at all. ‘First he flipped because we had no CDs. Then he asked to look at a record and made a run for it.’
“‘What was it this time?’
“‘Genesis. Invisible Touch.’
“‘What did you do, Frank?’
“Frank had done the sort of thing he always did. He’d grabbed his old suede jacket and loped after the young man until he caught him at the bus stop. (What kind of thief waited for the number 11?)
“He’d said, between deep breaths, that he would call the police unless the lad came back and tried something new in the listening booth. He could keep the Genesis record if he wanted the thing so much, though it broke Frank’s heart that he was nicking the wrong one—their early stuff was tons better.”

(Joyce, Rachel. The Music Shop: A Novel. Anchor Canada, 2018.)


In her book The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce doesn't just say “Frank is passionate.” She demonstrates Frank’s passion through his reaction to the thief.



“They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draeger’s for hot fudge sundaes.
“At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below.
“In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Hey Jude.’”

(Ng, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere. Thorpe, Isis, 2021.)


In Celeste Ng's book Little Fires Everywhere, she paints a vivid image of the town through small descriptive scenes. She doesn't simply tell the audience that “the town was quaint.”








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