“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most plainspoken rules in creative writing, and yet its message will carry your writing journey.
“Show, don’t tell” is not just a suggestion for creative writers; it’s at the heart of what defines creative writing itself.
“Show, don’t tell” is not just a suggestion for creative writers; it’s at the heart of what defines creative writing itself. This is what makes it a Golden Rule of creative writing.
In this article, we’ll explore what “Show, don’t tell” means and how understanding it can help us as writers, and we’ll give you lots of exercises you can experiment with to properly balance “show” and “tell” in your own writing.
What is “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing?
Rather than asserting something for the reader to accept, “Show, don’t tell” writing transmits something for the reader to experience.
What does “Show, don’t tell” mean? At its root, it means that rather than asserting something for the reader to accept, your writing transmits something for the reader to experience.
To see what this means in practice, let’s look at a couple of examples:
Do you see the difference? The first text doesn’t invoke a very specific experience, and it doesn’t feel like all that much. It’s just information: “Huh, I guess it was terrifying. All right.”
Conversely, the second example does invoke a specific experience: it actually lets you visualize some sort of shambling spike demon drawing closer to you. It doesn’t just talk about scariness in the abstract—it is scary, at least a little bit. As the reader, you can imagine how the main character might have felt, using your own ability to imagine and feel.
Here’s another example, this time of a single “Tell, don’t show” sentence and lots of “Show, don’t tell” examples:
Show, don’t tell:
- He shivered and pulled up his flannel scarf.
- He ducked his head against the bitter December air.
- The wind wicked heat from his exposed skin.
- “Beauty is pain,” he said, wincing as the cryogenic gunk touched his warts.
- The cashier’s glare froze his innards.
Each example expresses very different emotions, settings, and conflicts—all within one sentence! By using “Show, don’t tell,” these sentences impart what kind of cold the man felt: was it a chill of temperature, of emotions, or of surgery? Is it a necessary chill, or a frightfully apathetic frigidness? Can we relate this cold to our own personal experiences?
“Show, don’t tell” writing is all about creating “doorways” for the reader: “ways in” that let the reader live in and directly experience the world of the writing.
So “Show, don’t tell” writing is all about creating “doorways” for the reader: “ways in” that let the reader live in and directly experience the world of the writing.
Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing Empowers the Reader
When it’s done properly, creative writing creates experiences in the reader. It brings up images in the mind, felt emotions in the body, sense perceptions, memories—you name it.
Readers bring the writing to life, by experiencing in their own way what the writer is working to transmit. The writer gives readers a world made of language—sets of happenings, images, meanings, associations—and the readers’ own experience of the writing depends on how their minds and bodies light up in response.
“Show, don’t tell” writing gives the reader a job that goes far beyond simply “understand” or “agree.”
In other words, “Show, don’t tell” writing gives the reader an experiential and interpretive job that goes far beyond simply “understand” or “agree.” Readers are always meeting writers halfway.
That freedom of interpretation—passing the human experience back and forth, and feeling it together, but each in our own way individually—is the beating heart of creative writing.
Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Separates Creative Writing from Other Types of Writing
Most writing in English does not follow the “Show, don’t tell” rule (including this article).
Most writing in English does not follow the “Show, don’t tell” rule. For example, this article exists mainly to tell you something as clearly as possible, for you to consider and perhaps incorporate moving forward. Most professions require this type of direct, declarative writing: statements that describe, educate, explain, and argue.
Creative writers have a far different goal. They more transcribe human experiences than describe them—always working to provide readers with doorways to enter the world of the writing directly. Where most writing is declarative, creative writing is exploratory, worldbuilding, and inventive.
Where most writing is declarative, creative writing is exploratory, worldbuilding, and inventive.
If lawyers were creative writers, they wouldn’t say, “My client is innocent. She has an alibi.” They’d say, “My client spent her evening like usual: chopping peppers and garlic over sizzling oil, popping one-too-many candied mints as she watched the 7 o’clock news, and thinking about the legitimacy of nation-states as she read Foucault in the bathtub.”
Of course, lawyers don’t talk like this. Why are we getting this deep into the human experience? We have a job to do. Besides, creative writing requires practice and deep thought. In fact, it took me 12 minutes just to come up with a backstory for this nameless, alibi-ed character.
Far more than most types of writing, creative writing invites the reader into an immersive world of experience.
“Show, don’t tell” can have a home in many writing styles that aren’t always thought of as creative writing, such as in journalism. But for the most part, creative writing works remarkably differently from other types of writing, and has remarkably different aims, because it is so strongly oriented toward inviting the reader into an immersive world of experience.
Should I Use “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing All the Time?
Nobody uses “Show, don’t tell writing” all the time, because some pieces of information are better off summarized.
Absolutely not. Nobody uses “Show, don’t tell writing” all the time in creative writing, because some pieces of information are better off summarized. Plus, lots of writing includes dialogue, and some people only talk using tell, don’t show language. Finally, readers need a break—they can’t be visualizing tons of images all the time, otherwise they’ll be exhausted quickly. A healthy balance of both is key.
To make this point, let’s look at an example of too much “Show, don’t tell,” and a more balanced example:
In the first example, we’re slowing readers down by describing things that probably aren’t worth their deep engagement. Those pieces are best left to “Tell, don’t show” writing, which is quick, summaristic, and simple, and which is the quickest way from cause to effect. So understand what’s less important and tell the reader about that, so you get get to showing them what is richest and most alive.
Understand what’s less important and tell the reader about that, so you get get to showing them what is richest and most alive.
In this vein, times when summaristic, “tell, don’t show” writing may be preferable include:
- Describing certain minor characters.
- Glossing over periods of time that are uneventful or unimportant.
- Transitioning between scenes.
- Writing memos, notes, dialogue, or other declarative media.
- Intentionally building a contrast with more evocative writing.
How to Balance “Show” and “Tell” in Your Writing
Getting this balance right requires three things: curiosity, craft, and confidence.
Getting the balance of “show” and “tell” right requires three things:
In the sections below, we’ll go through these three elements one-by-one, giving you lots of tools and exercises to practice incorporating “Show, don’t tell” into your writing.
1. The Role of Curiosity in “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing
Many of us are unpracticed in the kind of exploratory, empathetic thinking that “Show, don’t tell” thrives on. (This is in part because most Western education systems do not foster a strong sense of creativity in students.) The good news is, we can practice! And it will make our writing much richer and more compelling.
As an example, let’s say I’m writing a story about a romantic couple performing an art heist. (Random, I know. I just finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, so if you’ve read it, you’ll understand where my head is at.)
The curious writer sees endless doorways for exploration, and lets that curiosity guide which details to focus on.
The curious writer sees endless doorways for exploration here, and will let that curiosity guide which details to focus on. The writer might be drawn to describing for the reader:
- Details of the museum’s layout and security systems, and the intricacies of the heist in overcoming these challenges.
- The fine brushstrokes of the targeted painting; the patina of history built up along its weathered frame.
- The protagonist’s shaky laugh when the sensors won’t turn off as planned.
- The moment of pure, unrestrained joy the robbers share as they unwrap the stolen painting in the moonlight.
- The small social cues that clue in on the robbers’ crumbling relationship.
- The detective and his task force’s process for investigating the heist.
With “Show, don’t tell” writing, we can let our curiosity guide us into each of these doorways into the story. But if we just want to get to some payoff (“the couple executed a brilliant art heist, but the one thing they couldn’t unlock was loyalty”), then we might miss all the details that make the story worth savoring—because of a lack of curiosity about those details.
These next exercises are sure to spark your curiosity.
6 Curiosity Exercises for Show, Don’t Tell Writing
These exercises are about noticing experiences beyond their surface, summary details.
1. Try freewriting for five minutes: just write continually in a stream of consciousness, continually, without pausing, editing, or revising. This is good for moving from “pre-processed” summary and interpretation and toward accessing more immediate parts of your experience.
2. Describe one of your characters using only the five senses. Don’t name the senses themselves, and try to use specific details—instead of saying “he has green eyes,” say “his eyes are like primeval forests.”
3. Remember a unique experience that will never be replicated. Something like your first love, a serious accident, a moment of intense feeling. What makes that experience unique? How can you convey that uniqueness through the five senses? What immediate experiences—thoughts, sense perceptions, feelings—stood out? Share these things in a few sentences or paragraphs.
4. Imagine yourself somewhere entirely new: in a medieval farming village, in a darkened robotics plant after midnight, you name it. What does this experience feel like in detail? Write what you perceive with your senses, emotions, and mind. Feel free to incorporate research if you’d like to get a better sense of this new environment.
5. Pick a random stanza or paragraph from something you’ve written. Now, try rewriting those lines as if they were told from another person’s point of view. What if the narrator was:
- of a different sex.
- twice the original narrator’s age.
- a used car salesman.
- hyped up on caffeine.
- your best friend.
- your favorite animal.
- your nemesis.
Pick at least 3 of the points of view above, and rewrite from them. In each case, how does the differentness of the point of view organically change the writing, without you needing to say so directly?
6. Read like a writer. Research for and read a book with characters and a setting you’re unfamiliar with. As you’re reading, pay attention to what makes this book’s subject interesting: how does the writer pull you into a different perspective and experience of the world, and show you things you wouldn’t have expected? Pay attention, then look for ways to emulate that curiosity in your own work.
2. The Role of Craft in “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing
Like all writing, exploratory or “Show, don’t tell” writing is built on the fundamentals of all good writing. These fundamentals help us write clearly and vividly in any genre.
Beyond these fundamentals, in creative writing in particular, engaging with literary devices is a crucial element of craft. It is these literary devices that let you show things like moods, patterns, associations, and multiple meanings.
Literary devices let you show the reader things like moods, patterns, associations, and multiple meanings.
We know Edgar Allan Poe’s writing was gloomy and claustrophobic, and often spoke to the parts of our experience that are tinged with madness and decay. Did he ever tell us this directly? No: it’s in the literary devices he used to establish mood and various kinds of associations and meanings in us as readers. He was able to show us something of his inner world—without ever needing to tell us about it—thanks to his own abilities in writing craft.
The below exercises will enrich your abilities as a craftsperson
7 Craft Exercises for Show, Don’t Tell Writing
These exercises are about honing your ability to create doorways for the reader, using expressive writing and literary devices.
1. Figurative language shows the reader a web of associations: how seemingly different things sometimes resonate with one another in experience. “The emergency blanket crinkled like a bag of chips” uses simile to convey a sensory experience, for example; or “joy is a lemon-yellow dress” conveys a felt sense of exuberance shared by bright clothes and happy emotions. In a few sentences or a short poem, use metaphor or simile to share the likeness of two things.
2. Write a poem or short story without using adjectives or adverbs. (So, not “he was tall,” since tall is an adjective, but “he towered over us.”) Describe things using only nouns, verbs, and literary devices.
3. Write a short story or poem that conveys a feeling—like anticipation, contentment, or guilt—without ever mentioning the feeling directly. How can you share that feeling as an atmosphere for the reader, in language that is about something else on the surface?
4. Find a literary device you’ve never heard of at https://literarydevices.net/. Then, write 10 different, original examples that use this device. (Try to do this even for devices that aren’t relevant to your genre. For example, a fiction writer doesn’t need to worry about end-stopped lines, but try them out!)
5. Transcribe a short passage from a podcast or talk show. Use that as the dialogue in a short story; fill in your own descriptions of the speakers’ body language and the scene around them to advance the story and establish a mood.
6. Write your next story in the style of a certain author. Hemingway, for example, was known for writing that was brisk and straightforward, with no excess. The Brontë Sisters, by contrast, are known for their sprawling sentences, lengthy passages, and slow, emotional writing. Pick a style to emulate, then write your next piece in that style. Take note of what craft elements and figurative devices you replicate.
7. Use a certain form. Poetic forms, like the sonnet or the villanelle, force you to use the writing craft. For prose writers, “form” refers to length—flash fiction versus vignette versus novella—and it refers to genres—romance, thriller, mystery, prose poetry, lyric essay, etc. Challenge yourself to fit different constraints; you’ll need the tools of the writing craft to succeed.
3. The Role of Confidence in “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing
Writing requires trust. If we as writers want to be heard and understood, we need to be willing to trust our future readers, and ourselves.
Confidence in Your Readers
When we put our writing into the world, we lose all control of how it’s going to be read. For many writers, this is terrifying.
When we put our writing into the world, we lose all control of how it’s going to be read. The ink has dried, the words are printed, and readers are left to decide for themselves if the story or poem is worth reading. This, for many writers, is terrifying.
And why wouldn’t we be terrified? When we write, we bury small pieces of our hearts in the words like squirrels storing seeds for the winter. Publishing that writing is like giving a stranger the map to those seeds, those heart-fragments, and then finding the next week that they’ve already been re-arranged.
Trust comes in in allowing your readers to interpret your work, and having confidence that their experience will be rich and meaningful.
Trust comes in in allowing your readers to interpret your work, and having confidence that their experience will be rich and meaningful—even if it’s not exactly as you would have dictated.
Why Telling Readers What to Experience Isn’t the Answer
If we approach our writing hesitantly because we can’t control how the reader will experience the work, we might respond by erasing any semblance of ambiguity in our work. In doing so, we end up telling the reader what to experience, instead of showing them our worlds and letting them experience those worlds for themselves.
“Show, don’t tell” always results in ambiguity. If we forego that ambiguity, we also forego the craft of storytelling.
“Show, don’t tell” always results in ambiguity, because readers have to experience the story for themselves, in their own ways. If we forego that ambiguity, we also forego the craft of storytelling.
“But I Want Everyone to Understand that…”
Many of us write because we want to inform, persuade, excite, entertain, or challenge our readers. Shouldn’t I focus on transmitting what I already know—the inalienable truths I’ve uncovered in my life, the things I wish more people understood?
Certainly, those discoveries should enter the mix of ideas in your work. However, if you’re not trying to grow from the writing process, then you’re not really embracing the humanistic nature of creative writing in particular.
It comes down to what kind of writing you want to do: didactic writing, or creative writing.
It comes down to what kind of writing you want to do: didactic writing (like this article), or creative writing. Creative writing is about shared human experiences. Our job, as creative writers, is to create the doorways that help our readers connect with the stories we tell. If that doesn’t interest you, that’s okay! You can spread your ideas some other way, from works of philosophy to training materials to blog articles like this one.
Leo Tolstoy is an example of an author who mixed expressive and didactic writing—and of the challenges in doing so. War and Peace contains long didactic passages about how human history works. These tracts of philosophy are almost completely forgotten; War and Peace has even sometimes been reprinted without them. And yet War and Peace‘s story lives on as a classic for what it shows us about the human condition, far above what Tolstoy was able to tell us about how to understand everything.
All kinds of writing are valuable. Just be clear your intention, before you tell a story that is accidentally a philosophy lecture, or vice versa.
Of course, some authors were great philosophers but unsuccessful playwrights. Just be clear your intention, before you tell a story that is accidentally a philosophy lecture, or vice versa.
Confidence in Yourself
The worlds you have to show your readers are worth them experiencing.
This boils down to believing that the worlds you have to show your readers are worth them experiencing. And they are. However complete or incomplete you feel as a writer at present, you can share your stories, and the world will be richer for your doing so.
Feeling this sense of permission is so crucial to “Show, don’t tell” writing, because creation is such an intimate act. It can be easier to bail on the whole thing and start telling us what you think about things—much safer-seeming, but it also doesn’t let us experience the world you want to create for us.
Accepting the Goodwill of the Reader
Readers want to read! Being a writer is not an imposition.
One thing that may help find confidence in yourself as a writer: notice that readers want to read! They want new experiences, ideas, and writing styles to excite them. This goodwill extends to the suspension of disbelief, and in a search for the merits of your work.
So being a writer is not an imposition. You’re offering into a win-win situation: both the writer and the reader benefit by the creation of literature.
Now, not everyone will “get” your work. That’s because the human experience is so vast. There is no writer in the world who appeals to every person. And you’ll never stop growing, as long as you keep writing.
So what are you waiting for? Show us your world!
Closing Thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”
We’ve covered a lot in this article, because “Show, don’t tell” is a deceptively big topic. We hope the discussion, examples, and exercises here form a truly helpful resource for you on your own writing journey.
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