Your Frame-Worthy Mini-Guide to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ (With Tons of Examples)

Your Frame-Worthy Mini-Guide to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ (With Tons of Examples)

39 Awesome Comments

Let’s say you had a stressful day.

You tell it to your friend on the phone. You say: “I had a stressful day.”

He says: “Oh, I’m sorry.”

But somehow you can’t help but feel that he hasn’t grasped the magnitude of the teeth-crumbling, nerve-shredding course of your day.

It’s only natural he doesn’t know. He hasn’t seen you driving slaloms through rush hour traffic, one finger on the steering wheel, while arranging appointments on the cell phone, and wrapping a birthday present with your left toe. He hasn’t seen you creeping in through the front door on your gums at 11 PM, loaded with papers and shopping bags.

He was told how you feel, not shown. “Stressful” is an abstract word. And we only fully experience things we are shown.

Another example: The other day on the radio, I heard that “two people were killed in a car accident.”

Did I feel for these poor people?

If I’m honest, not at all. They were just news on the radio. I was just given a piece of information. When we are told a summary, we don’t feel in our guts what happened. That’s just human nature.

But what if I had witnessed their car crash, seeing their blood and skulls cracked open, hearing their screams? What if I had been talking to their crying families? Would I have felt for them then?

You bet, I would have felt for them more than you can imagine. You can’t imagine right now, because I just told you, I didn’t show you. I would have tears streaming down my cheeks. There, now I showed you.

Excuse my macabre and extreme example taken from our media-filtered reality. But such is the power of ‘Show, don’t tell’!

And when narrating your stories, you should use it to your advantage.

When you just tell somebody, you are taking away from them experiencing your scene. They might as well read an instruction manual. ‘Telling’ is like a big neon sign. It’s the most obvious clue you are reading an amateurish, unexperienced writer. Don’t do it!

So in honor of showing, this post will lay out for you how exactly you can use the good, old ‘Show, don’t tell’ to create unforgettable stories. In this post, find the answers to the following questions:

  • Why are you always tempted to ‘tell’?
  • Which words are strong indicators that you are ‘telling’?
  • Which tricks can you employ to avoid ‘telling’?
  • You will also get lots and lots of examples, so ‘Show, don’t tell’ will become engrained in your DNA by the time you finish this post…

Like always, I also have a little gift for you:

Show Don’t Tell Worksheet

This worksheet summarizes the most important points of the post. Keep it at your desk while you are writing, so it can remind you at all times to ‘Show, don’t tell.’

You will also get some exercises to sharpen your showing skills. Print out, and use for all of your future stories:

Show Don't Tell Worksheet

No spam, ever.

Show Don’t Tell Meaning

Which one of the following two snippets pulls you deeper into the story?

This one:

Aaron was a cheerful young doctor, and he loved his car dearly. It was a beautiful and very expensive vehicle, and he liked to feel its horsepower below him when he ignited the engine.

 

Or this one:

Aaron stepped out into the bright summer sun with a smile on his face. Whistling a little tune, he walked up to his Porsche, and admired its shiny, brand-new body and rims. “Good morning, Thunderboy!” he said, and he couldn’t help but bend down and press a gentle kiss on its shiny black hood. He dropped his doctor’s bag on the passenger seat, hopped in and let the motor roar up.

 

Obviously, the second example hooks us much more, and draws us quicker into the story. It lets us experience the scene directly.

And that is why in your scenes, you should show, and not tell.

The difference between those two is really like the difference between watching a 3D movie and reading a review of the same movie online.

Telling means that you are putting quick labels and broad, simple adjectives on things. You are claiming something is so-and-so. You summarize.

Showing means that you describe details, and use action, emotion and dialogue to paint a scene for your reader. You are demonstrating that something is-so-and-so.

Anton Chekhov knew what he was talking about. In a letter to his brother, he stated:

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared.

 

Even in this letter itself, Chekhov practiced some ‘Show, don’t tell’: He didn’t just tell us what he meant, but showed us with a practical example…

Beware! The Looming Danger

Telling is easy. You just pile up a couple of adjectives like in a class essay, and baaaam, you can say “I wrote a story.”

Showing is hard. You have to do brain work and think about “Which details can I include?” and “How could I demonstrate this in a visual way?” You have to immerse yourself completely into that scene, and sometimes you have to think backwards how to demonstrate something.

That’s why telling takes a lot less effort than showing. The difference is like claiming you just decluttered your garage versus actually doing it. It’s very tempting to just take the lower road and tell.

But don’t do that!

Be aware of that temptation, and don’t give in to it. If you put in the effort to show, you story will be so much more gripping and engaging, and will be a much more exciting experience.

Now let me show (not tell) you how to do it in detail:

How to ‘Show Don’t Tell’

1. Use Details

The first and most obvious thing to do when you show, don’t tell, is describing details. Be as generous as Santa Clause with details!

Make the spooky house a house with dark windows, shattered lanterns, a doorway covered in cobwebs, and an overgrown path leading up to it.

Don’t say Kate is angry. Instead, describe how Kate bangs the table with her clenched fist, her face turning slightly red, screaming “Damn! I can’t believe it!”

 

Unfold the scene in front of your mind’s eye, and those engaging details will come to you easily.

Show don't tell Image

Spooky House

2. Try Not to Use These Words

Some words are signs that you are telling, not showing. These bad words are (view them as villains): Adjectives and any form of the word “to be.” They will seduce you to tell, not show. You must resist their evil powers!

With adjectives, you can put a quick label on anything; something is “beautiful, big, funny, strange…” The same is true for variations of “to be”: “he was, she is, it was…” All of these lead to quick labeling, rather than showing.

But I will give you an anti-spell against their evilness. The formula is to ask yourself:

How do I notice she is quick/he is funny/it is delightful/etc…?

 

Answer yourself that question, and you will have a great list of descriptions to show to your readers. This question is like your secret weapon against all adjectives.

3. Use Nouns and Verbs Instead

On the other hand, here are the good words, the Batmen of your dictionary (I’m so happy I got to use the plural of “Batman” for once): They are the nouns and verbs.

If you use nouns and verbs, they will force you to describe. They will force you to do the right thing, like your mom shoving spinach down your throat when you were little.

Instead of writing he was a grumpy man (adjective), you now write he rarely talked, and when he saw the kids playing, he just let a grunt out of the corner of his mouth (verbs and nouns). Voilà!

4. Use senses

Using senses is pure showing!

Instead of a lush garden, make it a garden with wild red and orange flowers, and a thick, sweet smell.

Instead of writing diving into the water was pleasant, write the water felt cool and fresh and clean on his sore skin.

 

When you describe a sensual experience, oftentimes your reader will have experienced it herself, and remember that while reading. She will then immediately and very intensely hear, smell, feel or taste the objects you lay out for her.

 

Show don't tell

 

5. Dialogue is Your Friend

Any dialogue line you use is always showing!

That’s because a dialogue line is reflecting straight up what’s happening in the scene, moment-by-moment. It’s never the author speaking.

So instead of telling your audience Don Pedro was a powerful man, write:

“The guy in the white suite, who just got off the Royce Rolls… that’s Don Pedro,” she muttered. “He seems to always get his way. People he doesn’t like… they just disappear. His power seems to have no limits!”

 

In that direct speech we showed in part (white suit; Royce Rolls), and in part we told (seems to always get his will; people just disappear; power seems to have no limits).

But all the telling in this snippet is no problem. Because the person talking is the character; it’s not you, the author… you are off the hook! A very convenient and perfectly fine way to sneak some telling in through the backdoor.

6. Dialogue Tags Are Not Always Your Friends

Now dialogue tags are something else entirely. They can very well be telling, and they often tell in a cringeworthy way.

A dialogue tag is the little attachment to a dialogue line that assigns a speaker (e.g. “he screamed,” “she said angrily”).

Dialogue tags are often horrible cesspools of showing, so please be very careful with them!

“You always go for the biggest sandwich!” she said jokingly.

 

“She said jokingly,” or “he said knowingly,”…? Seriously?

That’s an over-explanatory label and bad telling. Frankly, to me it looks like the author is desperate. Like he didn’t find any other way to express himself than hastily sticking that explanation to the end of the sentence.

You will do much better to leave out such an attachment. Instead, make your figure express the joking demeanor through her dialogue line itself. You can also use body language, it makes for great showing and will paint a nice image in your reader’s mind.

How about this?

“Oh you… you…always go for the biggest sandwich!” She laughed and slapped his arm.

 

Much better. This is show, don’t tell.

How to Show Don’t Tell

I promised you examples, and examples you shall see. I hope the following list will engrave show, don’t tell deeply into your subconscious, and inspire you to always show off… I mean, to show in your stories!

A. Show don’t tell descriptions

‘Show don’t tell’ is most obvious with descriptions. Go into details! Split up that one adjective into several smaller observations. Describe enough details, and a vivid image will pop up in your reader’s head.

Don’t do it like this:

The Ferris wheel looked fun.

Do it like this:

The Ferris wheel had silly clowns painted on its sides, and its baskets had little umbrellas in red, green and blue as canopies.

Don’t do it like this:

Tessa was a lovely lady.

Do it like this:

In came Tessa. She nodded politely in all directions, and it seemed like she acknowledged every single person with a warm smile, directed at them personally.

 

Show don't tell image

B. Show don’t tell emotions

When you describe emotions, it’s easy to forget showing. It’s easy to just tell that your character feels “happy,” or “sad” or “embarrassed.”

But instead of telling how your character feels, try to show it; body language and dialogue are both great for that.

Don’t do it like this:

Roger was bored.

Do it like this:

Roger’s foot was tapping a steady rhythm onto the ground, and later he started doodling on a sheet of paper. It seemed to him like the hour would never pass.

Don’t do it like this:

Erika was annoyed that Mark still hadn’t returned her book about climate change.

Do it like this:

Erika looked him straight in the eye and said: “You still haven’t returned my book about climate change. What are you waiting for, the polar caps to melt?”

Show don't tell Image

C. Show don’t tell activities

Whatever your characters are doing, you should consider ‘Show, don’t tell’ it. If the action is not very interesting or meaningful, a quick telling verb might be better. But if it’s worthy exploring, go deeper and show.

Don’t do it like this:

Henrietta ate a lot that day.

Do it like this:

That day, Henrietta ate chicken with vegetable risotto, a huge bowl of mixed salad, fries, and three slices of that chocolate biscuit cake she just couldn’t resist.

Don’t do it like this:

Milo opened the door and shot the guy in the protective suit.

Do it like this:

Milo opened the door, aimed with a calm pulse, and shot the guy in the protective suit right between the eyes.

 

D. Show don’t tell setting/mood

If you want to get under your reader’s skin with a moody setting, you have to ‘show, don’t tell.’ What about this place evokes its mood? Describe the physical details; use nouns, verbs and senses.

Don’t do it like this:

The waterfall looked majestic.

Do it like this:

The waterfall was 300 feet/100 meters high, and the cascade dropped down from the sharp cliff with roaring thunder.

Don’t do it like this:

The rubbish dump at night looked creepy and unsettling to Randy.

Do it like this:

Dark trash piled up around Randy in all sorts of grotesque forms, like he was walking a deep abyss. Crooked shadows seemed to be on the hunt, and the nasty smell of plastic litter and food remains stung in his nose.

 

I wanted to write “the nasty smell of litter stung in his nose,” but then I changed my mind and showed more details. Now it’s even nastier, don’t you think…?

 

Show don't tell

Show Don’t Tell PDF

You can get the most important tips of this post all summarized on one sheet; just download this PDF. Put it next to you while you write, so you never lose sight of ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The PDF also contains an additional page to practice your ‘Show, don’t tell.’

Show Don't Tell Worksheet

No spam, ever.

Show Don’t Tell Exercise

Now it’s time to practice your ‘show, don’t tell,’ so you will use it automatically when you write. Once you don’t have to think about it anymore, you can concentrate on the creative, fun part of your story.

The following examples all tell in blatant and obvious ways. Pick one or more of them, and convert them into showing:

Kayla was a talented piano player.

The lawnmower was broken.

It was a restless squirrel.

Those guests were loud and obnoxious.

The audience of the concert was enthusiastic.

Greg was in a sociable mood.

Winny felt shy.

Rhonda decorated the table in a cute way.

Andy climbed up the lamppost.

The factory was very neat and clean.

The forest looked magic.

 

Now post your exercise in the comments below. Do you dare to go first…?

Telling… No, Showing You Goodbye! (or Showing You the Door, maybe?)

If you can show your readers a scene, you will have an exciting story. Showing takes more effort than telling, but it will make your scene come alive. Use lots of details, and describe with nouns, verbs and senses. Be careful with adjectives and variations of the word “to be,” they tend to be telling. Dialogue lines themselves are always showing, so let your characters talk!

In case of doubt, ask yourself the golden question: How do I notice she is quick/he is happy/etc…?

‘Show, don’t tell,’ is your best friend. If you can do just this one thing alone, your readers will dive into your scenes head over heels. They will have beautiful flowers to touch, spooky houses to enter, elegant parties to celebrate. They will live in your story, and they will love it!

Image Credits – Header Pic “Living Book”: Patriartis/DeviantArt; Mortgage Pic: High level specialist/Shutterstock; Turd Pic: AlexHliv/Shutterstock; Evil Banana: Barandash Karandashich/Shutterstock; Middle Finger: Franco Volpato/Shutterstock; Death by Fruit: nuvolanevicata/Shutterstock

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39 Awesome Comments. Join in!



39 Comments

  1. Gifford MacShane

    Your examples of show/don’t tell are excellent, and I really like the exercises given. Unfortunately, you’ve fallen into the same trap most people who advise “don’t use adjectives/adverbs” fall into. This sentence,

    “a garden with wild red and orange flowers, and a thick, sweet smell”, contains five adjectives, while this one, “the water felt cool and fresh and clean on his sore skin”, contains 3 adverbs and 1 adjective. The same is true in most of the other “better” sentences presented. The “noun/verb” rule sounds really good, but it’s almost impossible to follow and create any detail at all. I truly wish this precept would go into the round file for all time.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Thanks, Gifford! You are making some interesting points.

      The rule “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs” is meant as “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs to label and summarize.” As you pointed out, using only nouns and verbs (and the little else we have in our word pools) is almost impossible. We wouldn’t get an enticing text.

      What really matters is that we don’t use adverbs, and to a lesser degree adjectives, as excuses to not let our readers experience things, emotions, characters. Let’s make the audience feel all of our descriptions!

      Also, the adjectives that belong to “verbs of senses” like smell/feel/hear/taste are far more acceptable than other adjectives or adverbs. That’s because the senses draw us into the scene automatically. And it would be pretty difficult and useless to describe what somebody feels on their skin without using any adjective. By saying “it felt,” what comes afterwards will automatically be an adjective. (And yes, these are adjectives, even though they feel like adverbs.)

      Generally speaking, colors are not that bad to use either. That’s because we have seen the color described and it helps us visualize quickly how something looks. But again, don’t use color as an excuse to summarize.

      In short: Don’t label, instead create an experience! That’s the main point, and everything else is just exploring that point in detail. Writing fiction is a complex matter. Take the basic rules, and use them for whatever makes sense to you!

      Glad you made this point, so I could comment on the examples, in case this confuses anybody.

      1. Gifford MacShane

        And now I’m totally in tune with you. My mantra is to find the best word and not worry about its defined function. Noun/verb/modifier isn’t as important as the picture you paint. But like Susanne below, many people hear the “don’t” and stop right there. I have a friend, also a writer, who was told she shouldn’t use “and then” and “but then” (I agree, they’re repetitive). However, she’s now trying to eliminate every “and” and “but” from her MS, with really odd results at times.

        Rules are to be taken with a grain of salt, and applied as carefully.

  2. tony

    This is great!

    Two minor nits. Use showing when the scene is important to the story; use telling when the description gets in the way. There are some times where the action is just to move along. The extra words–because showing virtually always adds words–slow the reader down with things that aren’t as important.

    Second nit (and it is small and doesn’t detract from the example, I think): “Oh you… you…always go for the biggest sandwich!” she laughed and slapped his arm. The sentence “she laughed and slapped his arm.” should begin with a capital ‘S’ since laugh is not a speech tag. Like I said, minor.

    Thanks for putting these together!

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hey Tony!

      In reply to point one: Yes, totally! There is a time to ‘tell.’ Use it when you want to speed things up, connection parts, etc… While writing this post, a strong urge in me came up to at some point write an article by the title of “Tell, don’t show.” And at some point, this article will be written…

      Second point: Noted and changed. I also broke your comment up into paragraphs.

    2. Steven Moore

      Tony, the example: “she laughed and slapped his arm.” should begin with a capital ‘S’ since laugh is not a speech tag.

      Well look again…it does begin with an S, not s.

      Just saying.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Ha ha, three words… Please don’t do this (see my reply to Gifford above).

      You can download the content upgrade sheet (yellow button)! It contains a two-page summary of the most important points of this post, including some of the examples. Two pages will serve you better than the entire 2,483 pages of this post printed…

  3. Linda

    My attempt to change “The lawnmower was broken.” “Gary yanked on the starter cord of the lawnmower. The engine sputtered, but did not catch. He pulled it again with better results — the engine caught, sputtered, revved, but then sputtered again and died. Gary tinkered with the throttle and tried again, but to no avail.”

    I’m very new to the creative writing process (been a technical writer for many years) and really struggle with the “show, not tell” idea. But this article and worksheet will help.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Nice, Linda! You are splitting that “was broken” thing up into what the character experiences.

      You still have two clear “tellings” in there though: “with better results” and “to no avail.” You could also bring in some senses: e.g. Gary is smelling smoke; a short, pathetic roar of the motor, etc…

      Kudos for doing the exercise!

  4. Arvilla

    Kayla was a talented piano player.
    My change:
    To say Kayla had talent understated her virtuosity on the piano. Determined to achieve, she endured grueling exercises while the metronome maintained its steady pulse, matching the beat of her heart.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Good to see you are going for the exercise again, Arvilla! This one is the most difficult one on the list, because “talented” is a pretty abstract word.

      How about this: “Kayla’s fingers were sliding over the keyboard without any effort. Her music seemed to lift the audience up to a higher place, as people listened with closed eyes and entranced smiles.”

      That’s another trick: Show somebody’s reaction to something. That way you are showing how something is indirectly.

  5. Keri

    I LOVE this post, Alex!
    As I can only imagine the work you put into it and your download… Thank YOU!
    I’m learning, experimenting and helping solopreneurs create storytelling videos. Your suggestions and examples for showing versus telling are perfect!
    I’ve printed your tips and example download.
    Here’s a comparison example from my simplistic script writing..

    Tell: I still have nightmares about how pirates killed my father. My mom sacrificing her life to bring me to Comzone Zone.
    Show: Haunting images flash. Pirates with blazing eyes- harsh voices- striking with swords, guns, clubs, arrows, hooks. Dad paralyzed by ropes… I watch… helpless.
    Mom drags my limp body -escaping in the adventure ship. Passing pirate ships lurking in the black sea… Mom brings ME safely to Comfort Zone.
    ~Keri

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Awesome, Keri! 😀

      Yes, “Show, don’t tell” is a powerful storytelling tool in any situation, including the business world.

      Your exercise is really, really great!! Totally draws the reader into the scene, very visual and specific. Plus, you packed long and epic events into a couple of words, and were able to do it with the power of strong images. I can feel this as I read it, as opposed to the “telling” version that is just boring. Well done!

  6. Rose

    ‘Rhonda decorated the table in a cute way.’

    Changed to…

    ‘Rhonda pursed her lips and surveyed the table. In the middle stood a plain white vase filled with a posy of spring flowers in shades of pink and violet. A name card sat in front of each place setting and a crisp linen napkin folded into a lotus shape rested on each place mat. She scattered some tiny flower shapes cut from shiny foil across the spotless cloth and admired the way they caught the light. Perfect!’

    Hardest part for me was getting rid of ‘to be’!

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Nice work, Rose, I love it! Lets us feel how carefully Rhonda decorated the table.

      Also, in regards to my first comment above, you do use some adjectives, but that’s completely fine, because you don’t use them to summarize. All to the contrary: You use them to get more specific and to paint a colorful image in front of the reader’s inner eye.

      “To be” always wants to come in through the back door, it’s sneaky… But I think it’s good you didn’t use it, because the description of a laid table is static by nature, and “to be” would have made it even more static and less interesting. Anyways, well done!

  7. Eddie Omobe

    Hey Alex,
    Your blog is AMAZING!
    I think this has become my go to source for anything writing related, and how to grow as a writer.
    Show, don’t tell has been a major issue for me, now that you’ve finally put this up, I see my writing taking a new turn. Looking forward to applying your tips in my writing.
    P. S. Your site is pretty rad. Wait, did I say that already? Had to emphasise it.

  8. Laura

    Thanks for this Alex. The concept of showing and not telling haunts me. Most of the time I over think it and end up with too little or too much. I printed the cheat sheet and will keep it above my desk. Here is my take on the forest looked magic prompt:
    The forest sparkled with ice from the frosty storm. Sunlight bounced off the pine needles, refracting through the branches like light through a diamond and sharpening what few shadows were left in mid-day sun. Following the muddy path through the trees would take you from the edge of the city into a whole other world.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Nice one, Laura! That’s some magic forest. And that one was difficult too.

      As story writers, we create something out of nothing. So to show, we have to dive deep into our imagination. Just keep on writing, and it will inevitably become second nature to you.

  9. Ia

    Thank you.

    I decided to tackle the lazy verbs in “The Ferris wheel had silly clowns painted on its sides, and its baskets had little umbrellas in red, green and blue as canopies.”

    — Painted clowns with silly faces decorated the Ferris wheel sides, and little red, green, or blue umbrellas canopied the wheel’s dangling baskets.

  10. Maurine

    Thanks for the post on show/don’t tell. This explains some things I’ve been told except for “seemed.” I was told it’s telling, yet I noticed you used it in your comment on the talented piano player. Could you clarify that for me? Is it telling or not?

    Also, isn’t the adjective/adverb rule mostly so we don’t depend too much on them to modify our nouns and verbs, like writing “He walked quickly across the room” rather than “He stalked across the room.” Or “the heavy wood door” instead of “the oak door.”

    1. Alex
      Alex

      You probably heard the “seemed” rule in regards to shortcuts like “he seemed boring” or “it seemed big.” And these examples do sound bad.

      Again, do whatever serves you, as long is it’s meant to unfold the experience in front of your readers’ mental eye and it’s not a lazy shortcut.

      I wrote “Her music seemed to lift the audience up to a higher place, as people listened with closed eyes and entranced smiles.” That doesn’t sound like a lazy shortcut to me. Of course, you could go into even more detail, like describing an entranced listener, etc… at some point it will become boring and a showstopper though.

      Adjective/Adverb: Yes, that rule should help us to keep in mind not to label (which an adverb tends to do), but to describe (which an adjective tends to do). Your “He stalked…” example demonstrates this very well. No modification with an adverb, but instead a better description with another, more descriptive verb.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Awesome, Naomi, enjoy!

      A LinkedIn button won’t be added any time soon, I’m afraid. There is just not enough reader demand. But of course a Twitter, FB or Pinterest share is always appreciated.

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