How to Write Fiction that Feels Real

This page talks about how to write fiction that feels real to the reader by "showing" instead of "telling." At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to more creative writing tips and help, including a free online writing course.

How to write fiction that shows instead of tells

Writing fiction is like trying to convince someone you're cool. As in, the best tactic might not be to walk up to the person and say, "Hello, I'm super-cool." No, instead, you'd choose cool clothes. You'd show up with cool-looking friends and make sure they mention cool things you've done. You'll seem a lot cooler to someone who thinks she's discovered your coolness for herself.

How does this apply to fiction? If you tell a reader something, the reader has to take your word for it. But if you show it to the reader, then the impact is a lot more powerful.


Examples of showing versus telling

Example of telling: Lois was a horribly messy person.

Example of showing: Hey, there's my sandwich!' Lois exclaimed triumphantly, spying yesterday's meatball sub protruding from the heap of dirty laundry on the backseat of her car.

What if, instead of messy, Lois were compulsively neat? Think about how you could show that. What does a compulsively neat person do? (I know someone who organizes her kitchen cabinets in perfect rows, measuring the exact space between the items with a ruler). What situations bring out a person's compulsive neatness?

Here's another example of telling: It was a hot day.

Example of showing: Her shirt stuck to the small of her back, and sweat rolled down her thighs as she trudged across the parched grass to the porch, where a collie panted in the thin shadow offered by the rocking chair.

Notice some advantages of showing versus telling:

  1. It's more interesting to read.

  2. It creates a sharper mental picture.

  3. It provides more information. The last "showing" example lets you know something about what kind of hot weather it was, neither the silken warmth of a tropical beach or the deadly scorch of the desert.

  4. It's convincing. If I say it was a hot day, you'll probably trust me on that. But if I say Lois is horribly messy, you might wonder if she's really as bad as I'm claiming. For all you know, I'm a neat freak, and Lois has things in better perspective. With the "showing" example, you can judge for yourself.

  5. It's possible to do more than one thing at a time. You can show the reader that the weather's hot at the same time that you walk your character up her front yard to her porch and introduce her dog.

"But if Lois is a mess, can't I just say she's a mess?"

Sure, you can. And there are times when you should.

A few reasons to tell something instead of showing:

  • It's not important.

  • It's boring. You might show me your character falling asleep in biology class, but please don't subject me to the entire biology lecture.

  • It's background information you want to communicate efficiently.

  • Telling just works better. If you want me to know that your character's from Ohio, you can say so. It's not necessary to leave Ohio bus tickets lying around his room or to have him drop "Go Buckeyes!" into the conversation.

Exercise: how to write fiction that shows

Replace each "telling" sentence with "showing" ones.


Telling - They were angry.
Showing - He slammed his water glass down on the table so hard her plate rattled. Still, she refused to look at him, glaring instead at her napkin, which she was ripping into shreds with her fingernails.

Telling - She was a very organized person.
Showing -

Telling - It was a cold day.
Showing -

Telling - She had a secret crush on her realtor.
Showing -

How to write fiction - next steps

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