Show Don’t Tell: The Key to Better Writing

Updated: Mar 2


Grammar. Spelling. Structure. All these are important, but a grasp on grammar alone won’t make your book a bestseller. Writing a good story relies on subtleties, things that you won’t learn in English class but are still incredibly important. One of the most important story subtleties -- and the key to better writing -- is “Show Don’t Tell.”

“Show Don’t Tell” can make or break your story and can transform a well-written book into an emotional, immersive masterpiece. But what does it mean to “Show Don’t Tell,” and is it really that important?

Let’s dive right in and look at two examples. Both tell the same story, but one is written using “Show Don’t Tell.” Can you guess which one?

Example #1

Jack met Madeline on a dating app, and she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He was nervous to meet her, but when she asked to meet him at an old café at 10:00, he couldn’t say no. He looked at the clock. She was late. Worried that he got the time wrong, he drank his coffee.

Example #2

Jack’s legs bounced under the rickety table. His Styrofoam cup of coffee shook as he pressed both elbows into the table, bloodshot eyes staring at his cracked cellphone screen. Or, more specifically, the woman behind it.

Madeline Newport. Her wide smile, billowing blonde hair, and skin-tight, sequined dress were practically burned into his brain at this point, but he couldn’t stop himself. He sighed and navigated to his texts.

“Hey, Jack! I saw you on the app Kindling, and you’re soooo cute!” Madeline had texted, “Wanna meet up? Tomorrow at 10, at Numenberg Café?”

“Yeah! Sure! I’ll be there!”

He craned his neck to look at the clock over his booth. 10:02 AM.

Maybe she meant 10 PM?

He snatched his coffee from the table and drank it all in one gulp. It tasted like water.

If you guessed Example #2, then you’re right! Instead of telling the reader what is going on, it invites the reader to create their own conclusions about the environment and Jack’s emotions. Showing increases reader involvement and intrigue in your story and characters.

Showing increases reader involvement and intrigue in your story and characters.

Showing also creates a deeper understanding of characters and their motivations. In our example, we learn about Jack’s nervous tics, his sense of punctuality, and his obsession with Madeline, all without telling the reader outright.

Additionally, showing the environment can help readers visualize and immerse themselves in a scene. Example #2 doesn’t really delve into the café’s environment, only mentioning the rickety table, the clock on the wall, and the cheap coffee. We could also throw in references to the lack of customers, the peeling wallpaper, and the smell of mold, to really show the reader how sketchy this place is.

But showing is not always the right move. If everything in the Lord of the Rings were shown, it would be over 50,000 pages long. Sometimes it’s best to tell the reader what happened and move on. Here are some instances where telling is preferred:

  • Menial or unimportant tasks. Unless it’s important to characterization, the plot, or setting the scene, we don’t need to know the specifics of microwaving Ramen or driving a car.

  • Skipping or speeding up time. If nothing plot-related happens for two days, then just tell us two days have passed. We probably don’t need to see the character’s daily routine.

  • Explaining things that would take too long or be too boring to show. Let’s say that your character broke her leg once while playing golf, and then swore off the sport for good. Unless it’s important for the reader to know, you don’t need to go into specifics. If another character asks why she hates golf, she can just say “I had a bad experience once,” and carry on.

But remember that these are not hard and fast rules. If a moment is important to the plot, setting, atmosphere, or character, you should almost always show it. Let’s go back to our microwaving Ramen example. Let’s pretend that, in the climax of our story, the main character saves the day by microwaving Ramen. In this case, we’d want to show how the character cooks Ramen at the start of the story, to show how she improves by the end. If in doubt, showing is usually better than telling.

If a moment is important to the plot, setting, or character, you should almost always show it.

However, it is possible to go too far with showing. This is called Purple Prose, and it’s the bane of a reader’s existence. Purple Prose is writing that uses unnecessary metaphors and/or flowery and obsolete language.

Here are two examples. See if you can guess which one is Purple Prose.

Example #1

Her immaculate orbs were the color of the brightest diamonds, and as pure as a glacial stream untouched by human hands.

Example #2

Her eyes were light blue.

If you guessed Example #1, then you’re right! It takes a simple idea (light blue eyes), and complicates it with metaphors and unnecessary language. You may have not even realized it was talking about eyes! So, how can we show without resorting to Purple Prose?

  • Metaphors and comparisons should ONLY be used to simplify complex ideas, not complicate simple ideas. Use metaphors to talk about the immensity of the Universe or the perspective of a single-celled organism, not the color of someone’s eyes.

  • If you’ve never heard a word spoken out loud, don’t use it in your writing. While there are some exceptions (for example, a professor may use field-specific language the reader has never heard), if your reader has to check the dictionary every other word, they’ll probably just give up on your story altogether.

“Show Don’t Tell” can mean a world of difference in your stories, making it an incredibly important skill for writers to master. Hopefully this has given you some ideas on how to improve your writing and incorporate showing into your works. Good luck, and have fun!

Elizabeth Ochsner studies English at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, fangirling, and plotting for world domination.

*images were added for clarity


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