Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Art of Show Don't Tell

There are a few different things that people seem to struggle with in writing. One of these things is Show Don’t Tell

I reckon that everyone has heard this term before, and I’m pretty certain that everyone struggles with it at times. It’s a trap that everyone slips into. I’ve been helping out some school friends and other writerly people with managing to identify telling and replace it with showing. I also felt that it could be a worthwhile thing to write a blog post about so that other people can look at it a bit more. 

There’s a lot of articles out there on Show Don’t Tell, and hopefully I’ve drawn off the best of them to present what I think is the most widely accepted view by a variety of writers and readers. 

I’ll also be including a list of these different websites and resources that have super duper helpful articles on this at the end of this summary. 

Now onwards to delve into the art of Show Don’t Tell!

“In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."
~ C.S.Lewis

What C.S.Lewis wrote in 1956 still applies to us today, as many people will note. Writers are regularly talking about, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ and how invaluable it is to writing, but it is kinda hard to actually know what that means, and how we can do it. 

The Difference Between Telling and Showing

Telling is giving the bare basics of the information to allow the reader to know what’s going on.

Showing is bringing to life those bare basics to allow the reader to experience what’s going on. 

There are four main types of telling that I see commonly in writing, and they are: emotion telling, action telling, description telling, and information telling.

‘John was sad.’ -emotion telling. 

‘John ran away.’ -action telling.

‘John had blond hair.’ -description telling. 

‘John had been a fighter in the third war of the twelfth sector of the ANL Corporation in 2032.’ -information telling.

To turn these into showing, you need to do a few different things:

Emotion Showing

When you’re trying to show a character’s emotion, you need to try and write about the symptoms of the emotion. Think about a person's posture when they’re dealing with an emotion. Their thoughts. Their internal sensations. What they’re doing at the time. Their voice. How they view the world around them. If you say some of these things instead of the emotion, the readers will know what the emotion is, and will be able to visualise it better. 

Let’s look at John being sad again.

John hunched over his desk, sniffing slightly and trying to stop his lip from trembling. Why did they go? We’re meant to stick together…friends. A dull ache pressed against his chest and his heart lodged itself firmly in his throat. Get a grip. It's not that big of a deal. A hand landed on his shoulder, but he kept staring down at the scratched surface of the desk. 

“Something wrong?”

He forced himself to swallow the lump and look up through a film of tears at his teacher’s face. He blinked a few times, sucking in a shuddering breath. “No,” he gave him a wavering smile, “It’s…it’s fine.” He bit his lip, mentally willing the tremor in his voice to go away. “Fine. Honestly.” There. That sounds more confident.

That is considerably more interesting than just saying that, ‘John sat at his desk and felt sad about his friends abandoning him.’ Why? Because it was elaborated and removed the telling word of the emotion’s name, ‘sad.’ 

A good way to see if you’re emotion telling is to see if you’ve used the name of the emotion somewhere in the section. If you have, that’s a fair sign of emotion telling. 

Action Showing

Main way you can look at this one is elaboration. It’s actually somewhat difficult to define just as is. Rather, it’s complicated and involves many different details to create the effect of showing action instead of just telling it. More about elaborating and allowing the readers to see, to be honest. 

Again to John.

John’s feet pounded against the ground and he spared a glance over his shoulder—his heart in his throat. They were catching up. Jerking his head back around to face forward, he skidded across the ground a few meters as the traffic lights turned green. His heart thudded an irregular beat in his chest and he sucked in a deep breath, running across the road, starting and stopping as the cars continued roaring past.

Again with this being far more interesting that the told version of, ‘John ran away because he was being chased. He got away because he ran across a road while the cars were moving.’ Suddenly, we can see the detail. Not in such an extent that it clogs down the story, but enough that it allows us—the readers—to visualise it fully. 

Using words and phrases such as, ‘was,’ ‘had been,’ ‘had,’ ‘because,’ ‘since,’ and ‘when,’ are all defining red lights that should warn you that your excerpt probably has action telling. (Same goes for their relatives in the present and future tenses.)

Description Showing

Also called ‘woven description,’ this is something that people tend to find difficult. How can you describe your character or place when you can’t specifically say everything? Basically, your readers don’t need to know all of that…at least, not in one hit. 

For characters: 

Weave in those descriptions naturally. You want the readers to know that John has blond hair? Feel free to have him shove blond hair out of his face, or look through a haze of blond strands.

John fell to his hands and knees and looked up through a blur of blond. His gaze met the pair of eyes as vividly blue as his own and he swallowed. Not here. Not now. He tore his gaze away, panting. The grandeur of the palace loomed over him, trying to swallow him. Always second best. Never good enough. He blinked, and the eyes were gone again.

This way it seems natural and isn’t just randomly mentioning that he has blond hair. As is, John has been described in a bit more detail, and it seems somewhat natural. 

Let’s move onto the place that John was in…

For places:

Also, weave in those descriptions. You want the readers to know that the room was large and well furnished? Seeming to be well looked after by years of care? Cold and unfriendly? Let them know casually, don’t have John stand there for a solid ten minutes mentally describing every little detail. Just mention what matters. 

John looked up to glare back at the room, trying to force away the oppressive air enveloping him. Polished bronze glinted at him from the banisters and portraits stared down at him, their gazes disapproving. He shook his head and pushed himself up from the carpet, casting his gaze over the ebony and glass. Where did he go? He kicked a cabinet and a resounding, thunk, broke the silence of the room.

This way, we can see what it looks like as well as seeing what’s going on in the plot side of things. Plus, it is far more interesting to see John interacting with the room, rather than just observing it. He point of view on the situation allows for the entire room to be more of a manifestation of what’s happening to him. Had he been happy and there of his own will, we would have described it differently. 

Just by weaving your description into the story, it instantly makes it more reader friendly then great slabs of description that no one really knows what to do with…aside from possibly skip over. 

Information Showing

Information telling, is often called an ‘information dump.’ As it is, we want to try and weave that information into the story itself. To be honest, this is one of the types of telling that I come across the most. It seems to like to turn up in most stories, and is really painful to get rid of. Why? Because it seems very important and necessary. 

Hello John! Let’s look at some info dumps in your life. 

John stopped outside the Museum, tingles running up and down his skin. The simple, box-like building was said to be one of the most secure places in the world. It had a regularly rotating guard, over a thousand security cameras, a laser maze, voice recognition security, DNA scans…the works. It had been erected in 2022 in order to protect the only remaining plant that was left on earth. Over five hundred million dollars were spent on building it, and all of those who made it were killed a few weeks after its completions. No one could get in or out without being registered. 

John had spent years studying it and wondering if he could get in. After all, it isn’t all that hard when you know what you’re doing to break into a high security building, at least not for him. He actually knew what he was doing, not an amature like the rest.

As you can see, that was a lot of words just telling us about what the building was. Did we need to know all of that? No, not really. 

Had we not been told much about the Museum for half a novel, but kept getting hints and desperately wanting to know, you maaaay be able to get away with it. As it is, we want to avoid this sort of information telling. 

Quick ways of spotting it are basically when you explain something. If you’re explaining much more than basics, then it is most likely info-dumping. Instead, try to show events. Instead of having John thinking about all of the protective layers, maybe have him watch a recording of someone trying to break in, and him experiencing all of the security layers. 

Again, showing is all about experiencing. You want the readers to experience, so you show it to them. 

There you have it. Those are what I can find as the four most common—and deadly—cases of telling in people’s writing, how to recognise it, and how to avoid it. 

A quick recap: 

Emotion telling is identifiable by locating the emotion names (sad, happy, scared), and able to be fixed by instead describing the emotion’s physical, mental, and internal effects. 

Action telling is identifiable by explanatory words and phrases (‘was,’ ‘had been,’ ‘had,’ ‘because,’ ‘since,’ and ‘when’), and can be fixed by elaborating on exactly what is happening instead of just stating it happening. 

Description telling is identifiable through chunks of description that are not woven in to make sense (John had blond hair), and can be fixed by instead weaving it into the text and having the character interact with the item of description or have a reason to focus on it aside from just for the sake of description.

Information telling is identifiable by a dump of information that is explaining something to the reader (purpose and function of the Museum), and can be fixed by allowing the reader to experience it for themselves. 

Finally, here are some helpful sites and resources to look at that help with it:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression - Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Now you’re all ready to go out and tackle Show Don’t Tell for yourselves! 

Any other thoughts about Show Don’t Tell? Ideas? Tips? Feel free to share below! 


  1. You nailed this! I loved your examples, and seeing all the different types of telling laid out neatly at the end was really good too.

    Also...K.M. Weiland's articles are the best. XD

    1. Awwww, thanks! Glad it seems to have worked!

      Yesss, they are.

  2. Good job Penrose! Really helpful!