How to ‘show, don’t tell’ in creative writing descriptions (with examples)



If you’re a new writer, you’ll almost certainly have come across that old ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra.

But what does ‘show, don’t tell’ actually mean? What is it to show rather than tell? And, above all, how do you as actual novelist successfully show, not tell, in your fiction?

Well, we’re here to answer all those questions and we’ve used lots of examples from books, classic and contemporary, to guide you as to exactly what’s needed for ‘show, don’t tell’.

(And do take a look at our video tutorial here.)

 

‘Showing’ story settings and descriptions

The Great Gatsby‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov once advised.

In every scene that you write for your story, in every description, don’t tell us what happened, show it happening.

The secret is to make sure when setting the scene that scenes unfold in real time. Immerse us. Make sure all seems very physically present.

In good fiction, pretty much every chapter is written in real-time (shown, not told, that is); it’s one of the things that makes a film so gripping and powerful. And in writing, too, it is still essential to create the experience of life unrolling moment by moment on the page.

You can add a sense of immediacy by never substituting specifics for vagueness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that Jay Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby were ornate, opulent, decadent, etc. His parties are all these things, but this wouldn’t give a real idea as these words, despite being telling words, actually tell very little. They don’t show us anything.

Instead, we are thrown straight into a party of Gatsby’s because narrator Nick Carraway paints precise details that create immediacy:

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. ... The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive ... floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside ... the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. 

We’re taken there because we’re shown specific details. Remember to do the same when you’re setting a scene, and appeal to all the senses.

Ernest Hemingway, for instance, describes in A Moveable Feast the salty taste of oysters: ‘with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.’ Or Amy Tan, her food as superstition in The Joy Luck Club: ‘dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons.’

So attack the senses. And you can learn more here about creating a sense of place in writing.

 

‘Showing’ characters through actions

The Bell Jar

It’s possible to evoke very powerful images and ideas in readers when we’re shown something that gives an insight into character.

Although our party scene example from The Great Gatsby uses ‘showing’ to set the scene, we’re also being told something about Gatsby himself. We’re being shown the lengths he’s prepared to go to impress Daisy, making the build-up to what comes later all the more tragic.

Actions talk and your character must act as is consistent with their nature, thus ‘showing’ this nature and keeping your plot character-driven. That comes through knowing your characters well, their inner values and motives.

In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel more about feelings than actions (i.e. protagonist Esther struggles to act), we are still shown Esther’s introspection through action: ‘I felt ... the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.’ Or: ‘My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass.’

These words are stronger than Esther simply telling us, ‘I felt depressed.’ That means nothing. Her actions, though, loop us into Esther’s feelings so we feel with her. We feel the heaviness of her hand. We feel also her disconnect beyond the New York crowds surrounding her (i.e. the empty space inside the tornado).

But metaphors and similes like this need to make logical and emotional sense to work.

The hollowness Esther experiences, the tornado hubbub she can’t cope with surrounding her, is a perfect analogy. Keep things sharp and to the point for written comparisons to bring power. It only takes deft insertions like this, ‘showing’ these things to connect a reader more directly to your protagonist but immediacy via action is key.

 

‘Showing’ characters’ emotions

Gone GirlIn Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl, we’re shown Nick Dunne’s feelings about his wife, Amy, who goes missing, in visceral words that help make the abstract concrete.

Readers aren’t shown too much from this below example (and we’re meant to be shown just enough and at a pace that builds suspense). But we’re shown images that plant ideas about emotion.

We’re shown coils, centipedes, skulls. We sense something very wrong between Nick and Amy Dunne, even if we don’t understand yet why:

Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud.

Here’s another insight into Nick’s turmoil: ‘In my belly-basement are hundreds of bottles of rage, despair, fear, but you’d never guess from looking at me.’

And that sentence wouldn't read the same if Nick had only told us, ‘I felt afraid.’

We know alcohol frees inhibition. We wonder what he’ll do if he taps into all that gut feeling. Simmering emotion like this will drive action later.

And any metaphorical language you’re using needs to be delicate, understated, making logical and emotional sense like this if you want it to resonate with readers.

 

‘Showing’ a story through dialogue

Pride and PrejudiceMake sure that you use dialogue to show character and propel action, not just report on a conversation that took place.

Dialogue is one of the most important tools in your ‘show, don’t tell’ arsenal and is another form of action. 

All Jane Austen’s novels are driven by dialogue, revealing vital character insights. In an example from Pride and Prejudice, Darcy has been walking with superficial Caroline Bingley in the Netherfield grounds before meeting (equally superficial) Mrs Hurst and heroine Lizzy Bennet.

The dialogue here is more telling than the descriptions surrounding it, because this quick exchange between Darcy and Lizzy conveys a lot in few words:

“You used us abominably ill,” [said] Mrs Hurst, “running away without telling us that you were coming out.”
Taking the disengaged arm of Mr Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr Darcy felt their rudeness and immediately said, “This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue.”
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, “No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye.”
She then ran gaily off.

Much here is shown through even a short conversation.

Mrs Hurst talks about politeness but reveals her snobbery so her words ring hollow. Caroline (silently) endorses this. Darcy’s true politeness makes him speak out. (And it seems more resonant due to the silence of the others.)

But Lizzy couldn’t care less. She gives a teasing answer about appearances, aware of their elitism and with no desire to be around them. Darcy is left with more proof of her authenticity, a contrast to the women he’s left with on the path.

So use dialogue to provide key character insights and move a plot further along. (And for a little more on dialogue in writing, just click here.)

 

When to ‘show, not tell’ in novel-writing

As ever, a little common sense is helpful.

There are almost no novels in which the author does no telling at all, and that’s fine. Telling is a very useful technique as long as it’s kept in its place.

Generally speaking, you want to tell when:

  • You are establishing a new scene or chapter and wish to get the reader quickly up to speed with any new facts.
  • There is no particular drama to be dealt with, just necessary information.
  • You wish to glide quickly over a period of time.

You will usually want to show, when:

  • There is dramatic action taking place. If those dramatic scenes aren’t allowed to unfold dramatically on the page, you are basically killing your own novel. Which seems silly, really, doesn’t it?
  • There is conflict, especially between one or more of your key characters.
  • The incident comprises a major plot development.
  • The incident involves the revelation of major new information.
  • Emotions are high.

Learning ‘show, don’t tell’ as a writer

As always, it’s easy for us to give you general rules and it’s a lot harder to apply them.

If you think you might have a problem with this issue, then get really disciplined about your response. Check every scene you write. Is it real-time (good)? Or reported after the event (bad)? Do you use dialogue (good)? Or just report what happened (bad)? Do you use plenty of physical language to set the scene (good)? Or do you just tell us where it happened in a sentence, then forget about it (bad)?

Also, if you find that your book is shorter than you expected, then it can often be that you’re telling too much, and showing too little. As the chunks on this page tell you, showing won’t just be better, it’s rather longer, too.

There are two main ways to develop your skills. The first is to really sharpen your know-how by taking one of our courses, and the other is to get honest and constructive feedback on your work. We can help, either way. Just get in touch.