Author Tips: What Is “Show, Don’t Tell”?
  • 4-minute read
  • 11th January 2020

Author Tips: What Is “Show, Don’t Tell”?

If you read tips on storytelling, you’ll see the phrase “show, don’t tell” used quite a lot. But what exactly does this mean? Why do authors do it? And how can you do it in your own writing? In this post, we explain the basics.

Action vs. Exposition in Storytelling

The phrase “show, don’t tell” refers to a technique used by authors. The basic idea is to tell a story through the action, words, and thoughts of its characters. We can sum this notion up with a quote often attributed (if possibly wrongly) to the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

In other words, rather than simply telling the reader something, good writing allows the reader to build an image and draw their own conclusions via the action, description, and dialogue. Take the following sentence:

Stepping out into the snow, Sarah felt cold.

Here, we tell you how Sarah feels. This is known as exposition. But we could instead write a more descriptive sentence:

Stepping out into the snow, Sarah shivered, then pulled her coat her scarf up over her face for protection from the wind.

In this case, we simply say what Sarah did in response to the conditions. The reader can still tell that she must be cold, but we show this via the action rather than saying it directly. Remember:

  • Showing means using the action, description and dialogue in a story to paint a picture for the reader, engaging their imagination.
  • Telling means using exposition to directly inform the reader of what is happening and what characters are feeling in a story.

And showing is almost always more vivid and engaging than telling in a story.

3 Tips for Mastering the Show, Don’t Tell Technique

So, how does “show, don’t tell” work? We have three top tips to share!

1. Use Description to Create a Sense of Place

A strong sense of place can bring a story to life. To achieve this, describe how the scene appears to the characters rather than describing it directly. Focus on their senses, such as what they can see and hear:

Telling: He entered the cave, which was very large and dark.

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Showing: As he entered the cave, he could hardly see an inch in front of him. But he could hear his footsteps echoing into the void ahead.

2. Use Action and Dialogue to Show Character

In real life, we work out the personalities of the people around us from how they behave. And the same is true of good writing! For instance, you could describe a character directly as follows:

Celine was the strong, silent type, not prone to emotional displays.

But this is telling the reader who Celine is! To make her more realistic, we’d want to show who she is via her actions and words. For instance, we could have her respond monosyllabically to other characters. Or we could write a scene in which she responds coldly to someone.

3. Watch Out for Adverbs and Adjectives

Adverbs and adjectives are useful for descriptive writing. But, in many cases, an adverb or an adjective is a missed opportunity for extra description.

For example, we can imagine the following sentence appearing in a story:

Henry reached nervously for the door handle.

Here, “nervously” is an adverb that tells us how the action was performed. But we could do the same thing by adding more description:

Henry’s hand shook as he reached for the door handle.

Here, we can still tell that the character is nervous from his shaking hand. But by using description to show this, we create a more memorable sentence.

We hope that this has explained how (and why) to use the “show, don’t tell” technique in your writing. But don’t forget that Proofed also has expert editors ready to help, 24/7. So if you’ve written a story and you’d like someone to help with the editing or proofreading, just let us know!

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