Show vs. Tell

Have you ever been told that you are telling rather than showing in your writing?

I think most of us have at one time or another.When someone first pointed this out in my own writing I had no idea what the person was talking about. Today I’m going to try to enlighten anyone not already familiar with this concept.

Basically, think of showing vs. telling as living the experience vs. someone telling you about it. It’s always going to be more powerful if you  give your reader sights, sounds, smells, etc. and really let them know what the experience is like. While I have never been shot at, I can easily imagine it is a lot different to have someone actually shoot at you than to have someone tell you about it. Or, imagine being home alone in the middle of the night and hearing someone break in. If someone tells you about the experience it doesn’t have the same visceral reaction as living it first hand.

Here are two examples to help you see what I’m talking about:

Jasmine was climbing into bed when she heard the sound of glass breaking. She went to the closet and pulled out her pistol then walked down the hall. She rounded the corner, looked into the living room and saw that the cat had knocked over, and broken, a vase.


Jasmine was climbing into bed when she heard a crash followed by glass shattering. She froze, heart racing, and listened, but the only sound was her own harsh breathing. Swallowing the lump of fear lodged in her throat she rushed to the closet. Standing on tippy-toe she pulled down the black box. With practiced motions she opened the latch and carefully removed the flat black Sig P-225 pistol from its case. She’d never wanted to need this, but now she was thankful that her father had insisted she learn how to use it. She checked the clip, yanked back the slide to chamber the first round and flipped off the safety with her thumb.

Taking a calming breath she stepped into the hallway. The short passage seemed to stretch before her eyes, transforming into something sinister where death loomed around each corner. Like a wraith she crept from one shadow to the next, pausing at each doorway for any sign of danger. Each step ratcheted her anxiety. It felt like a swarm of bees had taken up residence in her stomach and every footfall sounded too loud, echoing through the still house. With shaking hands, she held the pistol out in front of her and whipped around the corner into the living room flipping on the light.

The cat blinked back at her. Deciding she was unimportant, he returned to his bath sitting in the middle of the coffee table surrounded by the shattered remains of the crystal vase her mother had sent for her last birthday.

Exhaling the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, Jasmine lowered the Sig and sagged against the wall. “Damn it Henry, you scared the crap outta me.”

The second example is a lot longer than the first but it also allows the reader to experience more of what the character is experiencing. Another tool I used in the second example is word choice. Using stronger, more descriptive, verbs like crept instead of walk, or shattered instead of broken enhances your writing. Using vivid imagery and adding specific details like pistol vs. Sig P-225 pistol can help a reader better visualize what is happening in the story and allow them to relate to what the characters are experiencing.

I hope this helps any new writers out there to understand the difference between telling your readers what is happening and showing them first hand. Also, maybe it will remind the rest of us to show, not tell! 🙂

Happy writing!

16 thoughts on “Show vs. Tell

  1. Good Morning Dana Mermaid! You gave a really great example here and I love how much more real-life your vamped up portion felt. I got lucky once and attended an online Show vs. Tell class with Kristan Kiggins who gave this example:
    TELL: She was very angry with Damien.
    SHOW: A hot pressure throbbed behind her eyes. Her fists clenched. If Damien said one more word, her head would explode, hopefully taking him with it.
    Once I read that, it clicked. Thank you so much for posting this today. I am working on edits and Show vs. Tell is a biggie to look out for!

    1. Hehe, sorry because of course I meant the wonderful and talented Kristan Higgins and not Kiggins! Another important part of editing? proofreading…

      1. Hehehehe… no worries Carlene, I knew who you meant. 🙂
        That is a wonderful example that really helps a reader see and feel what the character is feeling, instead of just telling you what they feel.

  2. Dana,
    This is such a big part of writing. I was in the same boat with you when I received my first ‘show don’t tell’. I didn’t really understand. Examples always help but there is a quote I really love and have it posted on my bulletin board where I write. (I’ve seen two different people quote this so forgive me if I have the wrong one): “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”–Anton Chekov

    I look to that every day when I write. It really does help to make an interesting scene.

    Hugs to you and thanks for the insight.

    1. Loni, I love that quote! Anything about the moon and that is so beautiful and vivid. Thank you for sharing xoxo

  3. Show vs. Tell – ahhhhhhhhh! I definitely struggle with this. Great example and awesome post, Dana-Mermaid!

  4. Kerri, I think we can all use a reminder every now and then to keep us on track. 🙂

    Diana, now that I’m back from a lengthy holiday with friends and I can get back to writing, hopefully I can finish fulfilling that book-length example. LOL! Edits and rewrites… here I come!

  5. Great examples, Dana. It’s something we all know but so easy to forget. It’s helpful to have an example drawn in another writer’s eyes and words.

  6. Well, first let me make it clear – I get the comment about show don’t tell and I’m NOT a new writer so I VERY much appreciated this post. Good stuff, Mermaid Dana. And never hurts to remind us ‘mature’ writers what we sometimes just can’t keep top of mind:)…

    1. I hear you Denny. I have been writing for some time now and there are still times that I catch myself telling instead of showing. I just caught myself doing it the other day when I was editing my WIP and it prompted this post. 🙂

  7. Dana,
    I, too, struggle with this one. Not because I don’t know the difference, but sometimes I get super frustrated with writers who do this too much. Sometimes it takes me right out of the story if he/she describes too much. And I think many judges in contests love to say “show, don’t tell” as just something to say. LOL.
    Listen, if my character is making breakfast, and I clearly say that she’s having coffee, that she’s making pancakes and waiting for her friend to arrive…do I really need to describe the exact smell of the coffee as it wafts in the room? Or how the pancakes smell like….hmmmm….well, pancakes?
    I tend to skip over authors using too much detail. Sort of like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES. The descriptions in that book (which everyone else apparently loves) drove me to madness. I felt like he described the house to such excess that I didn’t even care to read the heart of the story.
    I agree with keeping the reader in the story. But I think we should all be careful with showing too much. Then you run the risk of boring them with details.
    I went to a workshop at RWA Nationals where they gave key words that writers use when they are telling too much. It was very interesting. And, at that workshop, they also mentioned that sometimes it’s okay to just tell the reader. 🙂
    What a great post, Dana!

  8. I agree Kim! And I have had contest judges say that in the past too — sometimes I think it was needed, sometimes I think it just gave them something to say. LOL! I think it is really important to show, but I agree, if you show the whole story you overload your reader and end up with a 300k word story. I have authors I avoid, not because they aren’t wonderful writers, but because if it takes 20 pages to describe the house and the room and the smells and the atmosphere then my brain has checked out. I want to know all of those things — I just enjoy the writers who can incorporate those elements as they tell the story, without it feeling like an information dump.

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