10 Ways You Can Master The Art of “Show, Not Tell”
The reason the advice to “show, not tell” seems so tired and overused is that you’ve likely been hearing it since you first picked up a pen. It’s arguably the most important technique in a writer’s arsenal, but it doesn’t come naturally. If you read stories written by children, they’re almost all telling and very little showing.
That’s because it’s far easier to simply tell your reader what it is you want them to know than to try and show it to them through descriptions, actions, or dialogue, yet by doing so your story is left flat and lifeless. By showing the reader your world, you create an emotional connection, you engage their imagination, and you leave a lasting impression that persists far beyond when they’ve finished your book.
Today, Ginger has put together a list of 10 different ways you can show, not tell – each one backed up with an example from popular literature.
Out of all the most popular pieces of advice for authors, one in particular has stood the test of time – the premise that writers should “show, not tell” what is going on in their stories.
It’s advice that’s so popular, we’ve even written about it before – in an article about how to “show, not tell” the emotions of your characters. That article provided some good tactical advice for authors; but I felt like there was room for another article which went deeper into the strategy of “show, not tell” as well – using examples from popular writers.
What is “Show, not tell”?
“Show, not tell” or “show, don’t tell” is one of the most fundamental principles of effective writing. It’s what makes the difference between engaging your readers’ imaginations and simply feeding them information. A good example could be in the way you describe a character’s anger. “He was angry” is much less evocative than: “His brow furrowed. He tightened his hands into fists and clenched his teeth.”
In the first example, you’re telling the reader what your character was feeling. In the second example, you’re showing how the character was acting – and through those actions, also telling the reader a whole lot more than your words could describe on their own.
It’s a technique that works so well because 80% of communication is done non-verbally – even on the page! That’s why readers can interpret a character’s mental state through a description of their physical actions – like a smile, a snarl, or blushing cheeks – much more clearly than they could by just being “told” what the character is thinking.
And “show, don’t tell” extends beyond just the actions and emotions of your characters. A few well-written details can describe a situation much more vividly than a plain, old description could – a concept perhaps best demonstrated by Anton Chekov’s immortal advice: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
By “showing” rather than “telling” you paint vivid images in your readers’ minds that allow them to experience the story through their senses as if they were living it. In this article, I’ll explore ten powerful techniques that authors can use to master this art, and provide examples from popular literature to prove how well they work!
#1 Use Descriptive Imagery
One of the most powerful ways to “show, not tell” is through the use of descriptive imagery. Instead of outright stating something, create a mental picture for your readers. George R.R. Martin, in his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, excels at this technique (and if you like learning about how George R.R. Martin writes so well, we’ve got a whole article dedicated to his craftsmanship here.
In A Game of Thrones he writes:
The night was black and moonless, but the sky was alive with the light of the stars.
With a few words of description he doesn’t just tell us about the darkness of the night – he instantly plunges us into it.
#2 Employ Sensory Details
Engaging the senses is another way to immerse readers in your story. J.K. Rowling, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, doesn’t simply tell us that Hogwarts is a magical place, she shows it through sensory details.
The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys’ house in it. The stone walls were lit with flaming torches.
Readers can imagine the size of the hall much easier than if it were simply described as huge or immense, and the idea of the torches give the magical school a feeling of warmth and atmosphere.
#3 Character Actions and Dialogue
Character actions and dialogue are further tools for “showing” what a character might be thinking or feeling in your writing. Obviously, we’ve covered how physical actions can betray emotions, but consider also Jane Austen’s use of dialogue in her legendary novel Pride and Prejudice.
Instead of merely telling readers that Mr. Darcy is a proud and aloof character, Austen shows this through his actions and dialogue. When he initially snubs Elizabeth Bennet, his insecurities become evident without the need for overt narration; and turns part of the charm of the book into watching Elizabeth finally come to understand his true motivations herself.
#4 Show Emotion Through Behavior
Although I dedicated that entire previously mentioned article to it, this is a technique worth mentioning again. Emotions are a central part of any story, and the way characters express them can be a powerful method of “showing” rather than “telling” what they’re feeling.
In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, for example, Atticus Finch’s unwavering dedication to defending Tom Robinson is a subtle but profound way to reveal his character’s moral integrity and sense of justice, allowing readers to infer his motivations without providing a direct explanation of them.
#5 Create Compelling Metaphors and Similes
Although metaphors and similes are terms most often used when discussing supposedly “great” works of literature, they’re powerful tools that even genre writers rely on to leverage a reader’s existing experiences to help paint a more vivid picture in their writing.
A great example comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel The Great Gatsby, in which he writes:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
This metaphor beautifully encapsulates the pragmatic theme of the novel without explicitly stating it, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters’ struggles and the passage of time.
(And if you’re interested in what else you can learn from studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, check out this blog post.)
#6 Use Symbolism
Just as metaphors and similes can be powerful ways to help paint a more vivid picture on your writing, symbolism can be used as a powerful tool to convey deeper meaning without explicit explanations. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, the scarlet letter itself is a symbol of Hester Prynne’s sin and the consequences she faces as a result of her actions. The letter’s visual representation conveys much more than a straightforward description of her guilt ever could; and remains a symbol that’s leveraged and present throughout her story.
#7 Set the Scene
Earlier I quoted Chekov when talking about how it’s more powerful to show a scene than merely describe it. Another author who uses this technique to paint a vivid backdrop for his stories is iconic American author Cormac McCarthy (so much so that I wrote a whole blog post about his writing here.)
In The Road, the barren and desolate landscape he writes about serves as a stark contrast to the love and determination shared between the father and son we follow through his story. Without explicitly stating the bleakness of the world he’s built, McCarthy’s descriptions allow us to feel the desolation and despair his characters face.
#8 Character Development Through Subtext
Subtext is another word more commonly confined to discussions of “literature” but it’s a technique that is equally common in genre and popular fiction. Character development is crucial in any story, and “showing” character evolution can be much more powerful than merely telling it.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example, Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miser to munificence is evident through his actions and interactions with others, rather than statements about how Scrooge has changed. Using “show, not tell” Dickens takes us through a visceral journey through which we feel Scrooge’s evolution into a warm and generous man.
#9 Build Tension Through Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is another clever way to “show” upcoming events without explicitly revealing them. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the ominous presence of the One Ring and the warnings about its corrupting influence create an air of impending danger throughout the story, long before characters like Boromir demonstrate the manner in which that corruption takes hold of them.
#10 Subtle Subtext and Irony
Finally, remember that subtext isn’t limited to characterization. Its use in combination with irony can add depth and poignancy to your writing, allowing readers to infer deeper meaning than just what happens on the page.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example, the animals’ noble ideals of equality and justice are gradually corrupted, creating a profound sense of irony and serving as a subtext for the shortcomings of collectivism. Orwell doesn’t directly tell readers about this irony, he merely shows it through the animals’ actions and the changing commandments on the barn wall.
“Show, don’t tell” remains a powerful guiding principle for authors who want to create engaging, immersive stories that challenge a reader’s emotions, rather than their comprehension skills.
By employing descriptive imagery, sensory details, character actions and dialogue, and by leveraging metaphors and symbolism, an author can bring their narrative to life in a way that allows readers to feel like they’re actively participating in the story.
As the examples I provided from popular literature demonstrate, mastering the art of “show, not tell” can elevate writing to a whole new level – captivating an audience and leaving a lasting impact that illustrates why these books and authors remain so popular today.
So, the next time you sit down to write, don’t dismiss “show, don’t tell” as trite and tired writing advice. Remember that the most powerful stories are those that rely on this technique – letting readers see, hear, and feel your narrative as if they’re living it themselves.