Story Writing Tips - "Show, Don't Tell" Explained

"Show. don't tell" is one of the most popular story writing tips that you often hear in creative writing classrooms. But what does it mean? And how do you do it?

Let's say I have a character named Paul who is a cruel and unpleasant person. I can TELL the reader, "Paul is cruel and unpleasant". Or, I can write a scene in which Paul kicks a puppy. If the reader sees Paul kicking the puppy, the reader will feel that Paul is cruel and unpleasant.

Let's say my character, Andrea, is very nervous. I can TELL the reader that she's nervous. Or, I can show the coffee cup trembling in her hands. I can show her talking too fast as her eyes dart around the room. Then the reader will feel her nervousness.

Let's say the hotel room is creepy. I can TELL the reader that it's creepy. Or, I can show the dark stains in the carpet and the lights that keep flickering on and off and the strange rasping sound that seems to be coming from the closet. Then the reader will feel that it's creepy.

In general, showing is more vivid and interesting than telling. It has a greater visceral impact.

On the other hand, sometimes it makes sense to TELL instead of showing. If Ivan is a doctor, I don't have to make a special point of showing him in his white coat and stethoscope. I can just say, "He's a doctor." That gives readers the information they need to know.

As a general rule, you'll want to show instead of telling when your goal is to make readers FEEL something.

If you're not sure how to show instead of telling, try asking yourself this question:

Why should the reader think so?

Paul is cruel and unpleasant. Why should the reader think so? Because he just kicked a puppy.

Andrea is very nervous. Why should the reader think so? Because her hands are shaking.

The hotel room is creepy. Why should the reader think so? Well, just listen to that noise (is it breathing?) coming from the closet.

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