How to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” in Your Writing

Many authors have heard of the old saying “show, don’t tell,” but what does it actually mean? Once you fully grasp the concept, it seems simple, but until then, it can be hard to understand.

“Show, don’t tell” is a writing technique in which the reader experiences the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. Showing allows the reader to come to conclusions on their own, while telling hands those conclusions to them.

What does “show, don’t tell” actually look like?

Let’s say you want to describe a character as sad.

You could say “Jane was sad,” or “Jane closed the door sadly,” which is telling.

Or, you could say, “Jane hung her head as she pushed the door shut,” which is showing. It allows the reader to picture the scene and infer the character’s feelings.

Telling: The parking lot was hot.

Showing: Alex saw heat waves coming off the pavement as the sun beat down on him.

Telling: The two had an interesting conversation.

Showing: “Oh, my gosh, no way,” Janelle said, leaning an elbow onto the table in front of her.

It should be noted that this doesn’t just apply to fiction. While the concept is most often discussed in reference to fiction, it’s just as important in nonfiction. Both genres rely on stories, and “show, don’t tell” is essential in telling compelling stories.

So why should you care?

Showing instead of telling is a skill that takes time to perfect, but is essential to your manuscript’s success. Publishers know that books perform better if the author utilizes this technique, so they are less likely to publish your book if it’s full of telling. But even more importantly, showing instead of telling will create a better experience for your reader, and more fully immerse them in the story you’re trying to tell. It’s the same reason readers often prefer books over their movie adaptation. They get the opportunity to paint their own picture when they read books.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should replace every instance of telling with showing. Sometimes, telling is useful in order to move the story along. When there’s no value in showing some mundane but necessary information, telling is preferable, so that the reader can quickly get through it to the interesting and engaging content.