The Truth About "Show, Don't Tell"

Here's why "Show, don't tell" is the WRONG advice, and what you should do instead.

"Show, don't tell" is something you hear a lot in creative writing classes. I don't think it's really the best advice—I'll explain why in a minute. But, first, let's clarify what's meant by "showing" versus "telling".

TELLING is if I say that Jane is in love with Mark, or that Jane's new house is creepy.

SHOWING is if I write a scene where Jane acts like she's in love with Mark, or if I describe Jane's house with details that make the reader feel that it is creepy.

Here's an example of TELLING: Sandra's afraid of Mark.

Here's an example of SHOWING: Sandra edged away from Mark, reaching into her jacket for her keys. In her self-defense class, they'd learned about using keys as a weapon. Why had she agreed to come back to Mark's apartment? She wondered if the neighbors were home, if they'd hear her if she screamed.

Here's an example of TELLING:

David's mother's a difficult woman.

In what way is the mother difficult? Is she bossy? Is she manipulative? Is she critical? Cruel? Is she mentally unstable, requiring constant care to keep her from harming herself? Is she violent and a danger to others?

From my "telling" statement, you don't know.

I could make the sentence more specific, saying: David's mother is bossy and controlling.

There's still a lot that you don't know. Is she bossy because she thinks she knows best? Are her intentions good? Or is she on a power trip?

The "telling" statement doesn't bring David's mother to life. It doesn't give you a real sense of who she is.

It also probably doesn't make you FEEL anything.

If I write a scene in which she's cruelly belittling David, you might feel angry at her and sorry for David. Or if I show her struggling to assert herself while David ignores her, you might feel sympathetic toward the mother.

So, some advantages of "showing" versus "telling"
- Showing is more specific and vivid.
- Showing makes the reader FEEL things.

But "showing" isn't ALWAYS better than "telling"...

Maybe my story isn't actually about David's mother.

Maybe I simply want to explain that David has decided not to ask for financial help from his mother. I don't need to write a whole special scene to SHOW what she's like. I can just say so.

TELLING is a lot faster than SHOWING. That's an advantage of TELLING. It allows you to get information across quickly.

That's why I think the advice "show, don't tell" is misleading. Writers hear that and think that they're ALWAYS supposed to "show" everything. But "telling" is also an essential tool for storytelling.

More useful advice is: "Show when it's better to show, and tell when it's better to tell."

You "show" the parts you want the reader to focus on, what your story's about. You "show" the characters you want your reader to get to know. You "show" things when you want the reader to FEEL something. You can "tell" background information that you want to communicate efficiently.

Some tools for "showing":

  • Description (e.g., Is the setting creepy? You can show some creepy details).
  • Action (e.g., if a character behaves in a courageous way, readers learn that she is courageous).
  • Dialogue (e.g., if a character speaks in an arrogant tone, readers learn that she’s arrogant).
  • Internal dialogue (e.g., You can show a viewpoint character’s thoughts directly. )
  • Facial expressions, gestures, body language, tone of voice (all of these can show emotions and character traits, especially in a character who isn’t the viewpoint character).
  • Characters’ reactions (e.g., if everyone’s scared of the house on the hill, readers feel that it is scary).

boy showing something to a girl

Show, Don't Tell - Next Steps

Join our free writer's email group!

Learn how to create a character.

Learn how to show your characters through great dialogue.

Take our free email course on character development.