Boost your creative writing by nailing show, don't tell!
Surely, you’ve heard your teachers go on about ‘show, not tell’. But what do they really mean? And, how do you do it? In this article, we will show you the essential 8 creative writing dos and don’ts of showing and not telling.
‘Show, not tell’ (also known as ‘show, don’t tell’) is a writing technique used to show actions, emotions, and experiences, as opposed to simply telling your readers what is happening.
For example, don’t simply tell your readers ‘the weather is hot’, describe how it feels and what it looks like this:
The sun burned against my skin; beads of sweat rolling down my face.
See how much more meaningful and engaging this sounds? We can visualise the extent of the sun’s heat, instead of simply thinking that it’s hot.
Remember, ‘showing’ is all about uncovering what is happening and letting the audience piece things together. ‘Telling’ is simply recounting exactly what is happening without much description.
We know that distinguishing between the two can seem frustrating at first. However, once you get the hang of it, using ‘show, not tell’ will be second nature to you! That’s why we’re going to show you the 8 dos and don’ts to ‘show, not tell’.
‘Show, not tell’ relies on sensory descriptions, emotions, and actions to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, instead of quickly stating the facts of what is happening.
This creates a more engaging read for the audience and allows them to build a deeper connection with the text.
Remembering to ‘show, not tell’ draws your readers into the story and let them experience things in your character’s shoes.
This process also leaves room for interpretation and allows your readers to think for themselves! They can pick up clues from your writing and piece together the descriptions of emotions or senses.
Telling doesn’t allow this to happen. Telling simply tells your audience what they should think. It is much less engaging because minimal visualisation is required.
Now that you know what ‘show, not tell’ means and why it’s important, let’s go through the 4 things you need to do to ‘show, not tell’.
One of the easiest ways to ‘show, not tell’ is to rely on the 5 senses to describe what is happening in the story. This will help your readers use their imagination to visualise the world.
The 5 senses include:
To do this replace basic nouns, verbs and phrases with these sensory descriptions! Reflect on the world and think about what you see, hear, taste, feel or smell.
Also, try to rely on more than one sense when you are writing to create a 3-dimensional world.
Now, let’s change this sentence from telling to showing:
See how the description uses different senses to paint a picture of a scary house in your mind? This is what you will need to do to show, not tell!
Dialogue is another great way to show, not tell, because it shows your character’s personality whilst allowing the story to unfold naturally! It is much more interesting than simply recounting what the characters say.
1. Use dialogue to show how the characters are feeling
By manipulating the tone, voice, and word choices, you can show the character’s feelings and emotions.
For example, you don’t need to tell your audience that your character is nervous and having doubts about something, you can use dialogue to show this:
“Do you really think this is gonna work?”
2. Use dialogue to show the characters personalities and traits
All characters should have a distinct way of talking.
For example, a character with limited education might speak with lots of slang and truncated sentences, a mysterious magician might speak in cryptic riddles, and a pompous professor might speak in long-winded sentences with high vocabulary.
However, just because characters should have a distinct way of talking, it doesn’t mean that you should force an accent to make a character “different” and “distinguishable”. You need to ensure that the character’s way of talking is natural and reflects their personality.
3. Ensure that all dialogue serves a purpose (aka, not too chunky)
This is an example of chunky dialogue that ‘tells’ what happened:
“How was lunch?”
“Not great. We ordered prawns because forgot Shelley was allergic to them! She was so mad, she stormed out of the restaurant. I feel so bad now. What should I do?”
Instead, break it up into smaller sentences to show what happened and what the characters are feeling:
“How was lunch?”
“Well… Shelley stormed out of the restaurant because we ordered prawns.”
“Oh no! She’s allergic to them.”
“I know. It slipped past my mind! What should I do now?”
See how much more engaging that sounds? There isn’t a large chunk of a recount. Instead, the information is given in a natural and realistic way.
Another way you can show, not tell, is to describe actions, body language, and your character’s reactions!
Body language is a great indicator of what somebody is feeling.
Think about films! You can immediately infer a character’s feelings without them saying anything. That’s because they are using body language to show this!
For example, if a character is angry, they might furrow their brows, pout, or roll their hands into a fist.
So, when you are writing, you want to replace simple emotional words with strong descriptions about your character’s body language, like this:
Another example is:
Active voice creates powerful imagery, whereas passive voice tells us what is happening. Here is the difference between the two.
Active voice is where the subject comes before the verb in the sentence. Here, the subjects tend to “do something” to the object.
For example “Kallum ate an apple” or Jessy picked up the pen.”
Passive voice is where the object comes before the verb in the sentence. This focuses on the object more than the subject. Often, you will find “to be” verbs in these sentences like “was”, “going to”, “were”, “are”, and “is”.
For example, “An apple was what Kallum ate” or “The pen was picked up by Jessy”.
So, when you want to show, not tell, you should aim to use active voice because it conveys a clear and strong tone. When something is written in passive voice, it sounds as though we’re listening to the story through a third-party.
To do this, place your subjects before your verbs, and ensure your usage of “to be” verbs are minimal.
Note: If you want to learn more about active and passive voice, check out our English Grammar Toolkit under Voice. We discuss the difference between active and passive voice in more detail.
With Matrix, you can learn all about creative writing with detailed theory lessons and gain personalised, constructive feedback from subject-matter experts.
Now that you know what you should do to ‘show, not tell’, let’s look at what you should not do.
Using generic verbs or words is one of the pitfalls in student’s creative writing. These are words that are vague and hold minimal connotations like smile, say, walk, and sit. They can fit in most situations.
Here, compare the two sentences:
For the first sentence, we simply visualise Harry walking into the room. There is no emotion and context inferred in the first sentence.
On the other hand, “slipping” into the room holds mysterious and suspicious connotations. It creates a higher stake and draws the readers into the story. Suddenly, we’re more worried about Harry. Will he get caught? What is he trying to hide from?
So, instead of using generic verbs, you should aim to use more specific words and verbs to better paint the image in your reader’s mind. Think about how your character feels and the context of the situation. Then, find words that hold similar connotations to the atmosphere you want to create.
Here are some examples:
|Instead of:||Say this:|
|Walk||Stroll, trudge, plod, hike, march, wander, escort, guide, tramp etc.|
|Said||Utter, announce, declare, yell, mention, comment, shout, cheered, profess etc.|
|Hold||Grab, grasp, snatched, clutch, carry, clasp, grip, clench etc.|
Using adverbs is not the best way to ‘show, not tell’. Adverbs are words that modify verbs, verb groups or adjectives to show a manner, degree, place or time. These are words that tend to end in -ly, like quickly, gently, badly, warmly, sadly, softly, and greedily.
Stephen King, a best-selling author, said that adverbs are not your friend:
“With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” – Stephen King, ‘On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft’
What he means is that using adverbs is a way of telling what is happening, instead of showing it. As Stephen King says, using adverbs makes it seem like you’re afraid of not being able to paint the picture, and we all know that ‘show, not tell’ is all about painting a vivid picture in your reader’s mind.
So, instead of using adverbs, you should find stronger verbs or adjectives that can capture the essence of what you want to say (similar to the above tip). Here are some examples:
Can you see the difference between the ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ sentences? The ‘showing’ sentences are much more powerful at painting an image in the reader’s mind. This is because they replaced the adverbs with powerful verbs!
Abstract words are words that refer to concepts or emotions; in other terms, they are terms that aren’t normally sensed with your 5 senses that we mentioned above. For instance, happy, sad, love, hope, believe, kind, and beautiful are all emotion or abstract words. Different people might visualise this in different ways.
For example, happiness can be shown through a smile on the face, a small bounce in one’s step, or even crying from tears of joy.
When you use emotions or abstract words, you are ‘telling’ your readers what to think; they aren’t given a chance to visualise the character’s body language or actions and feel the character’s emotions.
Remember, showing is all about painting a picture in your reader’s mind. So, instead of using emotions or abstract words, you should think about what it looks like and describe it.
Do you notice the difference between the two examples?
In the first example, we used ‘scared’ to tell us how Ursula is feeling. This is much more unengaging because it doesn’t build up the fear, suspension, and urgency that is created in the second example. The second example shows us what Ursula is feeling through the visual, auditory, and tactile descriptions. By doing that, we also feel her fear as well which makes it much more engaging.
Over-explaining is something you should avoid at all costs. Remember, less is more!
Your readers are intelligent beings. They are capable of piecing hints and inferring information themselves.
So, you don’t have to explain why everything is happening! Here, take a look at this example of over-explaining:
“Sandra drove to the grocery store because she was nervous about tonight’s party. She really wanted to impress the in-laws but they’re so difficult to impress. She knew she had to buy something delicious and impressive but she was still unsure of what to buy. There are so many options.”
Notice how the whole paragraph is telling us exactly what Sandra is feeling and thinking, and why she is feeling and thinking that way. There isn’t much room for interpretation and it isn’t a very engaging read.
So, let’s rewrite the paragraph to remove the over-explaining.
“Sandra drove to the grocery store, her hands gripping the steering wheel a little tighter than usual. A roast chicken? A bottle of wine? A hamper basket? She sighed.
A sudden tightness grew in her chest as the memories of her last meeting with the in-laws clouded her mind again.”
Which one is a more engaging read? The second example didn’t over-explain everything. It left some room for interpretation which engages the readers and keeps them wanting more.
This is why it’s important that you are not over-explaining yourself in your writing to show, not tell.