When I was an undergrad student many moons ago in 2012, I took my first collegiate-level creative writing workshop. That course brought me two things: The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (a literary world classic) and the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

As I shared on my Instagram last month, this introduction to the idea of “show, don’t tell” was a frustrating experience for me. I don’t remember exactly how the professor explained it to the group, but it didn’t make sense to me. I was good at providing sensory details, but as you may know, “show, don’t tell” is about more than some sensory details. It also applies to emotions and reactions.

I went through five drafts on my project for that class, and I still have them all saved on my computer. I reread them recently, and even in the one semester I was in that workshop, I can now see the leaps and bounds my writing made along the way. 

But that came at a cost. I remember sitting in my room in my apartment, trying not to cry as I looked over vague notes from the professor on each draft. I wish I had those paper copies so I could tell you why his notes didn’t make sense. All I remember is that they didn’t.

Eventually, I got an A in the workshop and was able to move on to other courses. I began to understand the concept enough to improve that part of my writing. But the phrase stuck with me, and I kept looking for a better explanation, one that made more sense to my brain. After all, we’re all wired differently, and what makes sense to one person doesn’t make sense to everyone.

Over the years, I found several explanations of “show, don’t tell” that just clicked for me. Some of this I learned through my own independent studies, and some I learned from my editing professors. 

Spoiler alert: you need to show and tell, even in fiction.

Let’s get started.

What does “show, don’t tell” mean?

In fiction, the principle of “show, don’t tell” means the author should be creating a scene for the audience, not just telling simple actions and facts to keep the story going. Showing allows the reader to live in the world you create for them and lets them experience things with the character.

Importantly, this includes experiencing the character’s reactions and emotions in a scene. This part of the equation actually has two levels: showing the reaction/emotion and providing some kind of context or meaning.

After all, it’s great to see the character experience anxiety, but what makes it impactful is to add context about why it’s causing the anxiety–or whatever emotion/reaction you’re working with.

Context usually comes in the form of ‘telling,’ and while it should be limited, it’s still important. More on that later.

How do you “show” in a scene?

Let’s break this down bit by bit.

Sensory Details

Sensory details are an important first step in “showing” your world to your readers. This is how you build imagery and make the world seem real. Think about all of the sensory experiences you have over the course of a day: sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touches. Seeing a cup of coffee isn’t as immersive as smelling the freshly ground coffee beans. Being told there’s a soft blanket on the sofa isn’t the same as running your fingers through the plush fabric.

Let’s look at an example.

Telling: Lucy walked down the street. There was a public garden there. When she entered, she saw different colored roses all around her.

This is okay. We know Lucy is walking down the street to visit a public rose garden. But it’s very boring, and it doesn’t feel like we’re with her.

Showing: Lucy ambled down the street, the sun warming her face. Turning left, she passed under an iron archway and was greeted by the sweet smell of dozens of rose bushes.

This is getting better at showing us the scene unfold. We added in some more visual details and included things like the warm sun and the smell of roses. Readers will be able to imagine these things almost as if they were with Lucy.

Adding in Emotion and Context

One key part of fiction is getting in the character’s mind and understanding what they’re going through emotionally. This helps readers connect with the character.

Right now, we know Lucy is walking to a garden. But do we care? Do we have a connection with her?

Showing: Lucy ambled down the street, the sun warming her face. Turning left, she passed under an iron archway and was greeted by the sweet smell of dozens of rose bushes.

Let’s add some context and emotion.

Showing with Emotion/Context: Lucy ambled down the street, grinning as the sun warmed her face. Turning left, she passed under an iron archway and was greeted by the sweet smell of dozens of rose bushes. It was just like all those years ago when she came here with her mother.

With this added context, we see Lucy is now happy (grinning) and coming here for what seems like the first time in many years. But now she’s alone instead of with her mother. It seems to be a happy memory for her, but it also leads us to ask why she decided to come here now.

As you can see, you don’t need to add a lot of overly descriptive language to shift your writing from majority “telling” to majority “showing.”

When should you show?

For the majority of your fictional writing, you need to show. This is how you build up scenes and experiences and help your readers build an emotional connection to your character(s).

Showing is useful in many situations:

  • To express emotions. If Sally is sobbing, describe how the force of her cries makes her body tremble. That’s more impactful than “She was crying,” if you need to show grief or distress. This applies to every emotion and is done with body language.
  • To build the world. As we worked through above, sensory details are helpful to set the scene. They can also help you worldbuild as you go. For example, instead of saying the street is next to the ocean, you can write something like, “Emilia strolled along the cobblestone street, the smell of spring wisteria mixing with the heavy, salty scent of the nearby sea.”
  • To highlight relationships and personalities. How your characters interact with others, through things like body language, can help readers gain insight into their relationships and personalities.

When do you “tell” something?

At this point, you might be thinking, “Hannah, we’ve gone over the benefits of showing, but you said this is about show AND tell. So what about telling?”

And that’s true. Writing, even fiction writing, is about showing and telling. Telling is useful in a few scenarios:

  • When you need to state a fact. Facts can provide that necessary context we explored before. “The cafe was fifteen blocks away, and she only had five minutes to get there,” is context if a character is shown running down the street, and this can be introduced with this simple telling sentence.
  • When you need to state a feeling. We don’t always need to see how exhausted your character is. It’s okay to write, “She was exhausted,” and then follow it up with more details or imagery as relevant.
  • When you need to introduce some backstory. Bits of backstory don’t require flowery prose that engages the senses. For example, if your character is trying to recount a bit of history that’s relevant to the plot, simply let them tell this information.
  • When your character needs to make an observation. Just like introducing backstory, characters don’t usually “show” in their dialogue. Most people don’t speak like that. Details may be important, but it’s okay if, in internal or external dialogue, a character makes a simple observation in a “telling” manner.

How do you find a balance?

While telling is part of storytelling and writing, there’s a balance to incorporating these techniques. Let’s use an example from one of the previous sections to show how you can weave showing and telling together.

Emilia strolled along the cobblestone street, the smell of spring wisteria mixing with the heavy, salty scent of the nearby sea.

We’re setting the scene here with a character who is walking down the street. Many people can imagine how it feels to walk on cobblestones, how wisteria smells, and that heavy ocean scent in the air. We’ve engaged sight and smell sensory details so far, but let’s add some more.

All the townhouses lining this street towered four stories above her, but Emilia loved the shade they provided from the late morning humidity.

Now we’ve engaged the ‘touch’ sense as well and added a little context. Summer humidity is a pretty universal experience, and noting the shade from the tall buildings explains more of the city layout and architecture in a subtle way.

A nearby clocktower boomed to life, its chimes ringing out over the calls of seagulls and vendors near the market. Emilia counted one, two, three… Twelve bells? she thought, heart racing. Yanking her watch out of her pocket, she checked the time. 

We’ve now engaged sound in the world, added some more details like vendors and seagulls, and even given some emotion: a racing heart.

Now, let’s add some “telling” here for context about her racing heart:

Her watch was wrong! It was half-an-hour behind the city clocks.

And back to showing to continue the action:

Shoving her watch back into her pocket, Emilia shouldered past the growing lunchtime crowd and turned onto the main road in the district.

And back to telling, one more time, to fill in the rest of the context about why she’s rushing:

The cafe was fifteen blocks away, and she only had five minutes to get there.

Let’s put it all together. Showing will be in normal text, and telling will be in bold text:

Emilia strolled along the cobblestone street, the smell of spring wisteria mixing with the heavy, salty scent of the nearby sea. All the townhouses lining this street towered four stories above her, but Emilia loved the shade they provided from the late morning humidity. A nearby clocktower boomed to life, its chimes ringing out over the calls of seagulls and vendors near the market. Emilia counted one, two, three… Twelve bells? she thought, heart racing. Yanking her watch out of her pocket, she checked the time. Her watch was wrong! It was half-an-hour behind the city clocks. Shoving her watch back into her pocket, Emilia shouldered past the growing lunchtime crowd and turned onto the main road in the district. The café was fifteen blocks away, and she only had five minutes to get there.

We wrote the vast majority of this example to be showing. Our character, Esmerelda, is in some kind of coastal city. She’s enjoying her walk to this café and taking in the sights and sounds, until she realizes her watch is wrong.

We could have written it to show the image of the wrong pocketwatch, but sometimes, simply telling the readers packs more punch and speeds up the pace. When you think you have time to spare, you don’t rush. You’ll notice things like seagulls and bells and floral scents. But when you realize you’re late, you don’t stand there, staring at the watch to make sense of it. You just think, “Oh, I’m late,” and you keep moving.

Really, “show, don’t tell” isn’t about only showing. How you use the two together to create a flow that works in your favor and keeps readers moving through your story. Getting bogged down in only sensory details, imagery, or emotions all the time can actually slow your pacing down. Telling important–and often basic–information actually keeps readers moving to the next set of details and action.

Just like everything in writing, this rule of “show, don’t tell” is more nuanced, and there’s always wiggle room for you to find your own style and balance.

Get Creative

You can also play with the balance of these as you get more comfortable with this concept. As you write, you made decide to purposefully show instead of tell to slow down time if it fits the purpose of your scene.

You can learn more about pacing in this blog post.

Wrapping It Up

While the phrase, “show, don’t tell” is an important part of writing, it isn’t giving you the whole story. Telling is also important in fiction, especially when used purposefully. By finding a balance between showing and telling, you can paint a beautiful picture for your readers without overwriting or slowing down the pacing too much.

If you need help with “show, don’t tell,” let’s chat! Fill out my contact form to get in touch and schedule your free consultation to learn how we can work together.


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