Show-Don’t-Tell is one of the most common pieces of advice…so common that many writers get sick of hearing about it: Yeah, yeah, show, don’t tell. I got it, I got it.
(But if it was easy to ‘get’ then editors, agents, and critique partners probably wouldn’t red pen those three words so often, would they?)
Show-don’t-tell is often misunderstood.
So, let’s break it down:
Showing provides an experience.
As a reader, what do you want, an experience, or a lesson?
Now of course, if we show everything, we end up with a 600,000-word monstrosity that’s only good as a doorstop. Which is why mastery of description requires a strong understanding of what the desired experience is, and how to achieve it economically through show-not-tell.
- Identify important, meaningful story moments
- Discern what details will best showcase these moments
- Deploy specific, powerful language to bring these details to life
That’s the heart of show-not-tell.
It’s also why almost every piece of advice on how to write emotion says show, don’t tell. Story moments where a character’s emotions are activated are guaranteed to be important ones, so yes, we should unfurl the moment. Showing will bring readers in close and activate their empathy. If we do our job well, our description of this emotional moment will trigger the reader’s memory, taking them back to a time when they experienced the same emotion. This echo connects them more deeply to the character and what they are going through.
The tenets of show-not-tell applies to everything, not just emotion. If we describe something, we should challenge ourselves to make sure it’s important enough to be included, and the best way to make this happen is by choosing details that do double or even triple duty.
So in addition to using description to “show” readers what’s happening, it might also…
…characterize a member of the story’s cast
…show a character’s emotional state
…hint at a significant past event or provide a backstory puzzle piece
…seed clues about what’s to come (foreshadowing)
…reinforce the theme
…reveal a secret
You get the idea. Basically, we want to make descriptive choices with intent. If you have to introduce a female character to readers, do you just offhandedly mention what they are wearing to provide an image? Heck no! Make the description count. Show how what she wears in an extension of who she is. If she’s moving about the room in a dress, make it yellow, a happy print that flutters as she walks. Show her swaying kidishly as she visits with people, giving an arm squeeze here and a bubbly laugh there. Make that dress a symbol of who she is: optimistic, friendly, warm.
Include details that pull their storytelling weight.
Think carefully about each detail and element, right down to where you set the scene. Setting choices matter because they are goldmines of symbolism and natural showing. So instead of choosing the first setting that comes to mind, think about what can enhance the action about to unfold.
Take an argument between a husband and wife that escalates until one admits they are having an affair to the other. Where should this scene take place – on a shared ride in to work? In the kitchen as they clean up breakfast plates? Or in the bedroom where the marital bed takes center stage? Clearly the answer is a no-brainer. The bedroom is loaded with symbolism and both characters’ emotions will be close to the surface. This gut-punch of betrayal will hit harder, too.
As you write, think about what you want the reader to experience and what descriptions will achieve that. Then think about the language choices that will bring it all together. Get specific. Strong verbs, concrete details, words with emotional weight. Steer readers to the epiphanies you want them to have by giving them details that act as clues and puzzle pieces to something bigger and more meaningful.
General Show and Tell Help
Show Don’t Tell Part One & Two
When to Show & When to Tell Tip Sheets + more (Goldmine alert!)
Mastering Show, Don’t Tell (Emotion, Setting, Physical Features)
Show, Don’t Tell: It’s Not Just About Emotion (Characterization, Backstory, Motivation)
When Telling Trumps Showing
Ways Writers Tell & How to Fix It
How to Show a Character’s Repressed Emotions
Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotions
The Connection Between Character Emotion and Reader Empathy
How to Show Emotion for Non-Viewpoint Characters
Telling vs. Showing When It Comes to Emotions
5 Vehicles for Showing (Instead of Telling) Character Emotion
Avoiding Clichéd Emotional Responses in Your Writing
10 Ways to Show Character Emotion
Does Your Character Description Create a Powerful Image?
Character Descriptions: Learn from the Pros
A Character Detail Writers Shouldn’t Skip
Using Physical Description to Hook Readers
Character Resource Page
Stock Your Bookshelf
Full disclosure: we are total description nerds. For a dozen-ish years, Becca and I have studied show-not-tell, analyzing different storytelling elements for their importance and ability to generate an unforgettable reading experience.
If you’d like to check out our bestselling guides to see how they might help you, you can find them here.
We also have a free Show-Not-Tell Pro Pack that contains samples, tips and our best articles. Grab it for yourself and give it to a friend! And if you’re looking for our books in other languages, our Foreign Rights list is here.
Become a Show-Don’t-Tell Jedi
It’s true, we’ve written a lot of books on description. But the largest descriptive database available to writers is actually at One Stop for Writers:
Talents and Skills
Symbols and Motifs
Colors and Patterns
If you want non-stop ideas on how to show-not-tell, this database and the many other resources at this site will become quickly your best friend. If you like, watch this walkthrough video to see some of our most popular resources, and then try it yourself. We have a 2-week free trial.