The Power of Show, Don’t Tell in Fiction


“Show, don’t tell” is one of the first narrative writing tips I received as a young writer. It’s simple enough to be taught in elementary schools, however, it can be hard to realize when and how to use it properly. Many writers don’t even realize they’re only giving a one-dimensional angle of an experience or emotion in their story.


A quick definition of the concept of “Show, don’t tell” tells us that this is a writing technique that creates descriptions of experiences and emotions through actions, feelings, thoughts, and/or dialogue. Essentially, you are helping the reader create an image in their mind or relate to an event. It allows for a much more immersive experience than dully stating each emotion that your character is feeling.


As Ernest Hemingway once told us, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” While that may be a bit hyperbolic (telling occasionally plays its own role in writing), Hemingway is right in that you shouldn’t give away all the details immediately. Slow down and keep it mysterious!


So how can we begin ‘showing’ to our readers? One tip is that when you’re using words like “feel” for “felt”, that is a sure sign that you’re telling rather than showing. When this starts to happen, brainstorm different ways to rewrite your sentence.


For example, set the scene by describing the sensory details your characters are perceiving and interacting with. You could also use dialogue to convey attitude, character details, and emotional states. This can be done by adding a stutter, using slang, or even by how long/short the character’s replies are.


Another idea is to describe action. Keep your story moving by describing what your character is doing in their setting or emotional state.


Here are some quick examples


#1

Instead of: “She felt angry.”


Try: “Her body began to shake with rage as she slammed the door shut behind her


#2

Instead of: “I feel like I might pass out.”


Try: “The room around me seemed to spin.”


#3

Instead of: He walked into the old house. It was already dark and he was trying to be quiet.


Try: The door creaked as it swung open, making him wince in the dingy room.


A word of caution: avoid long, unnecessary prose that bog down your writing. Find a balance that works best for you. Ultimately, it takes a lot of practice to master the art of showing in writing, but with some work, you could show your readers a whole new world!

 

About the Author: Chelsea is a student at the University of Central Florida studying psychology and mass media. When she isn’t studying and furthering her career, you can find her writing articles on Her Campus, finding hidden gems to read, or binge-watching a new Netflix show.

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