How to 'Show' and not 'Tell'

‘Show, don’t tell’ must be one of the – if not the – most used pieces of writerly advice. But like with so many phrases, it’s often used without further explanation, which inevitably leads to confusion, which inevitably leads to despair (or, at least, it does in my case).


This is really bad, not least because as writers we have enough to despair about already. But also because I believe that learning to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ is a skill that can transform a writer.


It took me practice and study to really understand what my betas meant when they scribbled ‘show, don’t tell’ in the margins of my work. Why were they’ll writing this when I was describing every movement, every flicker of an eyelash?


I think this is where a lot of the confusion arises. Simply describing a scene isn’t ‘showing’. Going through every motion your MC makes isn’t ‘showing’. Beautiful prose isn’t ‘showing’.


So what is showing? Here, I’ll break down the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ and why ‘showing’ is so praised. Then we’ll go through some ways I bring ‘showing’ into my own writing – with examples. Last but not least, I’ll cover why sometimes ‘telling’ is actually the better option.


What does it mean?


Telling: when you are 'telling' in your writing, you’re conveying facts. This can be done beautifully well – a lot of description is actually ‘telling’ – but often it can be dry and push the reader away from the narrative.


The sky was a marble of blues and pinks - an example of ‘telling’. There’s nothing wrong with this!


Their swords clashed. He ducked under her shield and swivelled to face his opponent again. Raising her sword arm, his opponent let out a long battle cry and her sword came flying towards him, the force of a mountain behind it. – this is a bit dry and boring. Even though the scene should be exciting, it is in fact simply a list of actions like the writer (me) is just choreographing a scene for two actors. As a reader, I’m not dragged into the fight and don’t really care what happens to the characters.


Showing: by 'showing' you’re inviting (dragging) your reader into the story so that they have no option but to engage with the world, fall in love with your characters and root for them from the first page. ‘Showing’ helps you do this by using all five senses, and describing the character's reactions (internal and external) to the world, events and other characters instead of simply stating facts. The reader will infer facts from your descriptions based on their own experiences, and it will force them into using their imagination, pulling them into the character's world, their feelings and their experiences.


‘Showing’ isn’t complicated. It doesn’t mean you need fancy words and lyrical prose or long and unique metaphors. You don’t need to change your voice or style; it’s about shifting your perspective about how you approach description.


How do you do that? Let’s see…


Describe character's reactions


We empathise with people when we see them react or feel like we have done, when our experiences align with theirs. This is true whether you're writing about the daily struggles of a single mother in Manchester, or a half-goddess warrior fighting demonic influences with magic (although to be honest, that sounds like the same character to me). We all feel certain things in the same way. Take the following example:


It was cold.


Dermot shivered. He hugged himself tighter, stuffing his hands under his armpits, head bent against the raging wind.


The first sentence is about as dry as it could get! The character doesn't get a look in, and although everyone knows what cold feels like, you relate far more to the kind of cold that makes you shiver and curl up into yourself. Dermot could be an accountant from Birmingham, or a Fae from the Outer Realm, but it doesn't matter; he’s feeling the cold just as much as we all do and the reader is sucked into his experience.


Try to avoid explicitly mentioning the five senses


This was a big one, and one it took me so long to get my head around it. But once you've got there, you'll see how avoiding using words like 'see', 'hear', 'smell', 'taste' and 'touch' make your descriptions more active so that even sedate scenes have a sense of movement. Compare, for example:


She smelt the calming scent of lavender on the summer air.


She raised her head into the summer breeze, closing her eyes with a smile as she breathed in the lavender.


There's nothing wrong with the first sentence. It has all the information the reader needs. However, by taking out 'smelt', you're forced to push the character into action (breathing) and engaging with the scenery.


Bonus: another couple of sneaky changes here double down on the ‘showing’. By changing 'air' to 'breeze', you're also bringing in another sense (touch), and by removing the adjective (‘calming’) and subbing in her reaction you’re making the reader infer the character’s thoughts about lavender from her reaction (‘closing her eyes with a smile’).


Try not to name emotions


This can be a difficult one, but if you know your character well, you'll know their ticks when they're happy/sad/royally pissed off. And if you've done a good job, so will your reader. There are also universal reactions to certain events that we can all relate to. Sobbing = sad. Smiling = happy. So instead of naming or describing an emotion and forcing it onto the reader, try to describe how your character is reacting.


Alison didn't like the rain


Alison glowered at the roiling grey sky.


Not only is this more interesting, it also gives the reader more insight into Alison's character.


Avoid using (too many) adverbs


This is a controversial one, but I think the root of this ‘rule’ is a good one. Adverbs are sometimes the most economical and the right choice; I’d never say ‘avoid them completely’. However, using too many adverbs can make prose a bit boring and repetitive, and could be a clue that you're 'telling' your reader the story, and not 'showing' it to them. Consider the next example:


He walked slowly.


He shuffled along.


See how taking out the adverb and finding a stronger verb can bring more insight? ‘Walked slowly’ gives us virtually nothing in terms of image or character insight. Is it a reluctant teenager, an injured solider, a middle-aged man out for a stroll on his lunch break? 'Shuffled', however, implies the character has difficulty walking and brings to mind an older man. You can further build on this:


He winced with every step, his boots rasping over the rough stone.


Now, we've got a true 'showing' sentence. The reader can infer that the character has problems walking, that he is in fact in pain with every step he takes. Even that perhaps our character is determined, as he's not stopping for a rest or giving up despite his pain.


Bonus: by mentioning the ‘rough stone’ you’re immediately bringing the scenery very naturally into the prose without taking away from the action. ‘Rasping’ starts to bring in the senses: the sound of the boots dragging across the stone.


How does your character engage with the world?


This is a great way to avoid white room syndrome (when you get so caught up in action or dialogue, you forget to mention the scene). You’ve already read a few examples above where we’ve brought the scenery into the description to make it less static.


It’s also a great way to describe someone’s appearance without saying it outright. One from an old WIP of mine, Winter's Fire, is:


She was short.


He wasn't a tall man, but Aisa had to look up to meet his eye.


This gives action to the scene, and also shows how Aisa has to interact with the world, instead of a bog standard description. Looking back on this (isn’t it just wonderful to look back on old WIPs?), I can already see how to make this even stronger.


Aisa held in her grimace as she craned her neck to look him in the eye.


Notice here how I have brought in not only the way Aisa engages with the world, but how she feels about it too?


Putting it all together


Here is a short piece to show the difference all these things can make to a scene.


It was raining heavily. Alison didn't like the rain, it brought back the memory of too many family holidays in the Lake District. The cold droplets soaked through her clothes and plastered her hair to her face as she quickly crossed the puddle-strewn street.


Or…


Icy rain stung Alison's cheeks. She shivered, her clothes sodden and clingy, and glowered at the roiling grey sky. Rain. All she could think of were the endless holidays in the Lake District. Her too big family stuffed into a too small caravan. Damp book pages. Squabbles over Ludo or Jenga. Baked beans on toast and muddy sprints to the shower block.

Water dripped off her nose. She hugged herself, shoving her hands into her armpits, and quickened her pace.

"Ugh!"

She flinched as water, gritty and freezing, filled her trainer.


Although I'm alluding to past memories, and concentrating on the senses other than sight, the first example is still 'telling'. The reader isn't really being given much scope to use their imagination, and it reads like a series of facts:

  • It's raining.

  • Alison doesn't like the rain

  • She has bad memories of family holidays

  • She is wet

  • She is walking quickly

  • The street is full of puddles


In the second example, I've concentrated more on Alison's feelings directly, pulling the reader into her thoughts, her actions/reactions and her senses, and letting the reader infer from this.


The same goes for the memories. Okay, she has a crappy memory, but by actually showing the claustrophobia of a rainy camping trip with the family gives the reader an opportunity to relate and therefore sympathise with Alison.


Instead just saying the road is 'puddle-strewn', I've ‘shown’ the reader that there are puddles by having poor Alison fall into one. Again, it gives action to an otherwise straightforward scene, and another opportunity to engage the senses and bring the reader closer to Alison's experience.


Don’t stop ‘telling’


There is far more I could have done in that scene above. And that is the problem with 'showing': knowing when to stop! If you 'showed' every single little thing in your writing, you'd have a book that would make epic fantasy look like flash fiction.


There is a time and a place for ‘telling’, and learning when you just need to get facts down is as much an artform of learning to ‘show’.


Taking the example of poor old Alison, this scene is all well and good if it means something to the story. But if none of this pushes the plot along (either with external events or with Alison’s internal demons) then the whole scene is just redundant and I’ve done a decent bit of work for no reason whatsoever.


Of course, perhaps one scene has finished and now Alison has to cross the road to get to the next scene and you’ve already mentioned there was a horrid storm. You’ll need to link these two scenes to make sure the reader is clear that you’re now in a new location. This is where you ‘tell’.


Alison darted across the street, avoiding the puddles.


Done. And. Dusted.


Alison has crossed the street, you’re ready to get started on the new scene and your reader has lost no time on wondering why suddenly Alison is thinking of the Lake District and baked beans on toast.


‘Telling’ is a great way to link scenes like this.


It is also a great way to get through the first draft. Don’t get hung up on ‘showing’ in your first draft. If you need to ‘tell’ the story to get through a difficult scene, then just do it. As Terry Pratchett said: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’.


Exercises


These exercises could help with finding a way to 'show not tell'.


  • Describe a tall character without saying they are tall. (Hint: how does their height affect their engagement with the world?)

  • Describe a character out walking on a hot day. (Hint: how does the heat affect them, and how does their body react?)

  • Write a scene with a nervous character making a cup of tea. (Hint: think about how the character's state of mind affects their completion of this simple task.)

  • Write an argument between two characters without naming an emotion. (Hint: how do your characters show feelings like anger, exasperation or frustration? How does the POV character's body react to these emotions?)



Meet Kat Tucker

Kat - or Katherine, Katie, Kate (but never Kathy) - writes new adult sci-fi and fantasy. She describes herself as an avid reader and certified cat lady and has been writing since she could form letters on a page. She loves being sucked into a unique world, steeped in rich culture and deep history filled with characters that have believable flaws and an innate ability to make a real mess of things. When not reading or writing, she can be found annoying her two black-and-white cats with enforced hugs, or hunting out new running routes.


You can connect with Kat on Instagram @kntuckerwrites, sign up to her newsletter or visit her website kntucker.com (her new website is coming soon).

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