As a freelance editor, I often see writers missing the opportunity to show, not tell. Whether it be an emotional first kiss between friends who’ve always loved each other or an epic battle in space, showing your reader what’s happening is almost always more engaging. Readers go into your writing looking to get lost in a story and showing allows that to happen.
Anton Chekhov, revolutionary playwright, and short story writer said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” With both plays and short stories, you need to be succinct and precise with description, so Chekhov was adept at the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, but we’re going to break it down.
Showing is useful in building setting, character emotions, traits, and actions, or for sensory perception (the five senses). Here are simple examples and tips for those circumstances:
Show, not tell in the building of setting
Telling: “Amy worked on the spaceship in the harsh sun.”
Showing: “Amy worked tirelessly on the Magnaship-3000, sweating through her clothes. Her shoulders and chest were shiny, red, and sore.”
This shows a sci-fi or future setting, with ‘Magnaship-3000,’ but also that it’s hot. Besides that, we know Amy’s been out there long enough to get sunburnt—do they have sun cream in this universe? Or is she simply forgetful? It also shows Amy’s dedication to her work to stay out that long without a break.
Telling: “The streets were decorated for Christmas, and everyone had done their shopping.”
Showing: “Fairy lights, tinsel, and baubles seemed to be strung, twisted, and hung in every house, throughout every street, and in every shop window. Everyone wore mismatching hats, scarves, and gloves, carrying straining bags, and empty wallets.”
‘Christmas’ is never outright said in the showing example, but we can infer from the setting that it’s about that time of the year. Using a group of words associated with your topic is another great way to show because we all have common connotations with certain things.
Show, not tell in character emotion
Telling: “David didn’t want the officer to know that he’d been crying.”
Showing: “David’s eyes were swollen and dark, his forehead creased. He swallowed, then cleared his throat several times before he hoarsely asked, ‘How—how did she die?’”
Rather than telling the reader how David feels, we know he’s upset because of his appearance, action, and voice. His dialogue being broken up also helps in showing this.
Telling: “David didn’t want to be at the dance.”
Showing: “David tucked himself in the corner of the school dance, arms crossed, shifting from one foot to the other.”
We can see that this version of David doesn’t like to be social. He’s uncomfortable and feels out of place—this isn’t a natural environment for him. Crossing your arms is naturally self-protective, and shifting from one foot to the other is a signal of being uncomfortable. Using body language or facial expressions (rather than outright saying the actual feeling or emotion itself) is another great way to show. Every day, we’re constantly reading body language or facial expressions, so we’re all able to connect the dots in understanding what certain signals mean in fiction too. Allowing your reader to infer gives them more credit and makes sure they’re into the story—rather than skim-reading it.
Character emotion through action
Telling: “David was so excited that he ran all the way home. It shocked his mom to see him home so soon.”
Showing: “David sprinted all the way home, jumping over fences, bumping into people. By the time he burst through the door, his feet felt like they’d explode. His mother rushed to him, wide-eyed.”
Though we don’t know why David wants to get home, we can see just how eager and excited he is to do so by his actions. We can also see that this is unusual for David by his mother’s reaction.
Show, not tell in sensory perception (the five senses)
Telling: “Sarah didn’t like the coffee.”
Showing: “Sarah scrunched her nose and shook her head, pushing the coffee away.”
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, seeing what’s happening is more effective than being told. Although showing takes up word count (which can be troublesome for competitions or submissions), I think you’ll agree that it’s much more natural and effective.
One extra thing you can do to show sensory perception is omitting ‘felt’, ‘heard’, ‘saw’, ‘tasted’, and ‘smelled’ where you can from your work. Their usage is sometimes unavoidable, though, so don’t take this as a hard-and-fast rule.
Some quick examples are:
Telling: “She heard sirens.”
Showing: “The sirens were deafening.”
Telling: “He felt tired.”
Showing: “He yawned, rubbing his eyes.”
Telling: “They saw birds.”
Showing: “Birds jumped from branch to branch overheard, seeming to follow us.”
Still, there will always be exceptions to any rule. One danger of being too conscious of ‘show, don’t tell’ is that you over-show, then end up using purple prose. At the other extreme, telling an entire story is boring.
Ultimately, it’s about balance, so telling can be the right option for a particular effect. Though telling, in comparison, is lacklustre where you could’ve shown, it can be useful as a narrative shortcut for exposition or fast-pacing. It also differs per genre, as you’re more likely to tell in a detective or children’s story.
The most important thing to remember is that getting your first draft done is much more important than having it be done and dusted. A first draft will always be messy, which means you’ll always have passages where you’ve told but could’ve shown. So, try not to overthink (which is certainly easier said than done). Showing isn’t something we all consciously do while typing away, it’s something we slowly learn. Enjoy the flow of writing as it happens, take your time growing and evolving. Naturally, implementing the ‘show, don’t tell’ idea (as well as a few others) will eventually become second nature.