An Author's Guide to Show Don't Tell
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
Do you need a little support with ‘show don’t tell’? In this blog I run through what ‘show don’t tell’ is, explore examples, identify successful techniques and offer practical steps writers can take.
What is ‘show don’t tell’?
So, what did Ernest Hemmingway mean when he said, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing,” and why is it important?
The technique ‘show don’t tell’ is pretty much what is says on the tin. It is a technique that makes your writing better and far more enjoyable to read. By describing events, rather than just telling the reader what is happening, you add drama and interest to your writing. Why? Well, because telling is factual and you are stating events or reactions. Showing, however, is the process of describing events and reactions; showing the reader employs more detail and places your character at the centre of the action. In short, the reader experiences the events rather than being told that something happened.
Anton Chekhov said, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Example of telling
Steven was incredibly lazy and didn’t take care of himself.
Simple examples of showing
Is this better?
Steven itched the skin of his stomach above the waistband of his jogging bottoms as the adverts came on.
Is this even better?
Steven itched the distended skin of his stomach above the elastic waistband of his jogging bottoms as the adverts came on, again.
(I’ll come back to this example later).
Which sentence did you prefer?
The telling sentence is short, it lacks detail and it also lacks interest. The telling sentence is factual and giving facts would be a much better form of communication for a report, for example, than a novel.
Did you feel anything when you read the telling example? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you didn’t. Factual and brief, there is a lack of emotion, drama and interest… all of which a novelist wants to create.
What do these examples of showing, well, show?
Showing, then, does the exact opposite of telling. Showing is detailed and creative, it can stir the emotion and elicit a response. Showing describes and is detail rich. Showing allows the development of character, place and action.
To understand these points more fully we need slightly larger examples so we can see ‘show don’t tell’ truly at work.
Charles Dickens is a master of show don’t tell – here he uses the technique to focus on setting:
“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”
This example from Dickens describes the dirty, polluted city of London brilliantly (in my humble opinion 😉). He could have simply told us that the city had mills that were dirty and polluted the river but instead he shows us and to do this he uses the following techniques:
Use of colours and visual detail to create a grimy impression: “red brick”, “brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it”, “a town of unnatural red and black”, “black canal” and “a river that ran purple”.
Use of simile to create an impression of danger and add descriptive detail: “a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage” and “the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”
Use of metaphor reinforces impression of sinister danger: “interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever.”
Use of a range of senses – smell, sound etc.: “ran purple with ill-smelling dye” and, “there was a rattling and a trembling all day long.”
Mary Shelley uses show don’t tell in this extract from Frankenstein but focusses on character rather than place:
“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
This example from Shelley describes the birth of Frankenstein’s creation. Again, she could have simply told us that the experiment was a success and the creature came to life shocking its creator, but instead she shows us what happens by describing the creature in detail. Note, she also focusses on the reaction of Frankenstein. Shelly uses the following ‘show don’t tell’ techniques in this extract:
The author describes the emotions and reaction of the first person narrator on seeing the character. Use of a rhetorical question to do this: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?”
Some short sentences for added emphasis. Range of sentence types – questions, exclamations etc.: “Beautiful! Great God!”
Use of longer, complex sentences to provide detail. Advanced punctuation, such as semi-colons: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness”.
Describes contrasts in his features which emphasize their unpleasantness: “but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
Scott Fitzgerald also focusses on place in this extract from The Great Gatsby:
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.”
This extract, describing a party, is detailed. Fitzgerald shows what is happening. He could have written a couple of sentences informing us that there is a party, that men and women attended and there is music. Instead, he paints a picture with his words so we can visualise the scene and, perhaps, imagine we are there.
Look at the sentence, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” I think this is a beautiful sentence and it is certainly imagery rich. It engages me – why are the gardens described as “blue”? “Men and girls” – this phrase, the contrast here, makes me think all sorts of things about the men in attendance, about the context (power and gender), and about young, beautiful females and rich, powerful, older men.
The simile of the moth is lovely. The moth imagery makes me think of creatures of the night (which the party goers are), of fluttering, delicate movement, perhaps the girls’ dresses in the breeze or when dancing. The moth simile also made me think about a temporary, transient presence. A moth visits drawn by bright lights, it is there and then it flutters on, like the party goers drawn by glamour who are plentiful and pass through the gardens. For me, the “champagne and the stars” adds glamour. Champagne evokes an image of expense (this is the party of a wealthy individual -“cars from New York” and “orchestra” reinforce this idea). Champagne is indulgent and expensive and this glamorous air is continued by the setting beneath the “stars”.
Clearly, this paragraph doesn’t tell. Not once is the word party used, yet there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that Fitzgerald is describing one. Remember the quote above by Chekhov, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass’? Here we aren’t told that it is evening, instead we are shown that “the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun”.
For more information on show don’t tell read this excellent article by author Harry Bingham: jerichowriters
At the start of this blog I gave you the example you can find again below. Now you have looked at 3 examples of effective ‘show don’t tell’ from literature, let’s look at this simple example in a bit more detail.
Example of telling
A. Steven was incredibly lazy and didn’t take care of himself.
Simple examples of showing
Is this better?
1. Steven itched the skin of his stomach above the waistband of his jogging bottoms as the adverts came on.
Is this even better?
2. Steven itched the distended skin of his stomach above the elastic waistband of his jogging bottoms as the adverts came on, again.
What impression do the bold words create of Steven in sentence 2? Remember, I wanted to show the character was lazy and that he doesn’t take care of himself.
Distended – I could have said fat, I nearly used flabby. Do you think distended is better? Your answer will be a matter of personal choice but ask yourself if I took out the word would the sentence be more or less effective in creating an image of this character?
Elastic – what does the inclusion of this word add? Why does he need/prefer an elastic waistband?
Again – what does the inclusion of ‘again’ add? The adverts don’t just come on, they come on again. What does this one word indicate about time and behaviour?
‘Show don’t tell’ means writing is extended as you describe a scene, rather than tell a fact quickly. In ‘show don’t tell’ characters may interact (so there might be dialogue), events will evolve (so it might play out in ‘real time’) and things, drama, will happen (remember action).
Take your time and shape your writing. Readers likely read because they want to disappear into the world you have created, they want to feel your character’s emotions… so let them.
Vocabulary and word choice
Within your text you will want to describe setting and/or characters. When you do this consider the power of word choice. Words should always be chosen with care and should be varied (avoid repetition). Be specific.
If you have a wide vocabulary this might not be such a challenge but if you struggle for word choice this will be harder. A thesaurus can help but be careful, we all remember what happened to Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani in Friends when he tried to upscale his vocabulary in his adoption reference letter for Monica and Chandler!
Did you know that the majority of our vocabulary after the age of five comes from reading fiction? If you want to improve your vocabulary, and by extension your own writing, then it’s time to get reading (lucky you!).
Vocabulary and ‘show don’t tell’ practical help ideas
Use interesting and varied words but don’t go too far so you lose the authenticity of your character’s voice (no baby kangaroos);
While adjectives are definitely important, don’t overdo them! No reader enjoys death by adjective (ask any English teacher!). Select well placed, specific adjectives and remember verbs can actually be much more effective for creating character and drama;
Select specific vocabulary to convey precise meanings (think fat, flabby, distended from the example above). In book 5 of The Guardians’ Trust, for example, my heroine sits beneath a kapok tree in the jungle. I named the species but I could have just said tree. Likewise, Aled is forever munching indigestion tablets. I name them – Rennie. If your character was sheltering from rain under a tree would it be better to refer to tree, branches or canopy?
Slightly off topic, but specific vocabulary can also apply to names. Lots of authors name their characters very precisely. A great example is Professor Remus Lupin, the werewolf, in the Harry Potter series. Remus was a mythological character who was raised by wolves and Lupin is a form of the Latin "lupus", translating to the word "wolf". Roald Dahl, David Walliams and even Charles Dickens employ this technique.
For more information on how and why I chose some of my characters’ names read my blog: Druid Magic & Celtic Pagan Beliefs
Use the senses to describe
Sensory description can be used to ‘show’ characters, settings and so on. In the example above Dickens used a range of senses – smell, sound and touch: “ran purple with ill-smelling dye” and, “there was a rattling and a trembling all day long.”
Many sources advise writers to use the senses but, like with all advice, use it wisely. The example below by Margaret Atwood employs the senses well but she doesn’t try and shoehorn all five in. Think about it, if you were writing a scene set in the street you might describe the sound of the traffic, the sight of the flickering orange of the streetlights but it might be inappropriate to try and get taste into your description (your character certainly wouldn’t go and lick a lamppost just so his creator could tick off taste from his/her senses list!).
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale:
“I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.”
There is a sense of nostalgia created here through Attwood’s use of sound, smell and touch.
Warning: Don’t confuse describing using the senses with telling a character’s experience of a sense. Dickens uses the senses of hearing and touching here, “there was a rattling and a trembling all day long.” But if I wrote, ‘he heard a rattling’ and/or ‘he felt a trembling’ I am telling the senses.
Can I ever tell?
Like every writing ‘rule’, there are times when there are exceptions - note the inverted commas… Sometimes information needs to be covered quickly or a point made clearly. Like your diet, it is balance that is important.
For me, writing is like baking. You need a pinch of salt to make bread taste good but if you throw too much in it just tastes bad! Your techniques are your ingredients – use them wisely.
Final thoughts & some practical help in how to show don’t tell
Of course, knowing all this is one thing, doing it well is something else entirely (so if you read my books don't judge me too harshly!). If you are keen to develop this aspect of your writing then there are some things you can do to really help yourself.
Read – and read well. By reading (and by reading good quality writers) you will experience show don’t tell that you can be confident is a good model to aspire to. Learn from these writers. Oh, and you’ll extend your vocabulary, too!
Write and edit. I once read that William Blake would take a year to edit a poem. Drafting and editing is all important and it enables a writer to look at specific word choices, use of imagery and, of course, ensure that ‘show don’t tell’ is used well.
Beware basic sensory words. Use your find tool in word and search out words like ‘heard’ and ‘felt’. If you are using these then you are telling.
Active verbs and adjectives. Rather than blast your work with adjectives employ specific, careful adjectives and focus on thoughtful verb choice.
Visual language. Remember Dickens and Shelley above? They used metaphors, similes, colours, sentence variety, contrast and reaction – so can you!
The senses. Use the senses but don’t force it. Don’t lick that lamppost!
Describe body language. Describe a shrug of his shoulders or the lift of her brow, rather than telling how they are feeling. You don’t need to tell the reader Becky is happy. If she smiles they will know!
Is your next area of focus Point of View? Have a look at my blog: An Author's Guide to Point of View
If you need more help and prefer a video you talk you through show don’t tell then look here
For some practical exercises on improving your ability to show don’t tell and some of the points above have a look at this website
Good luck with your writing!