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You’ve heard the classic writing rule, “Show. Don’t Tell.” Every writing blog ever has talked about it, and for good reason. Showing, for some reason, is really difficult.

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The Secret to Show, Don't Tell

Telling is one of the hardest habits to eradicate from your style. I still struggle with it regularly. However, writing that shows is so much more interesting than writing that tells that it’s worth doing the work.

In this article, you’ll find the definition of “show, don’t tell”; see several show, don’t tell examples; and learn the one simple trick to stop telling and start showing in your writing.

What is Show, Don’t Tell?

“Show, don’t tell” is a popular piece of creative writing advice to write with more sensory detail, allowing your reader to hear, see, taste, touch, and smell the same things your characters are experiencing.

As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

(Note: even though you’ll see the above quote frequently, it’s a bit of a miss-quote. Here’s what Chekhov actually said.)

How do you “show, don’t tell”? The good news is that it’s pretty easy to show if you just learn this one trick:

Be More Specific

The simplest rule to remember if you’re trying to show is just to be specific. Specificity will fill in the gaps from your telling and bring life to your scenes. Let me give you an example of how being specific will help you show.

Here’s a very tell-y example:

They went to New York to see Cats. They both enjoyed it very much. When they tried to go home, their flight was delayed because of the snow so they stayed another night and decided to see the musical again.

That’s a fun story. A great trip to the city could be ruined by the weather, but they make the most of it. It’s all pretty vague, though, isn’t it?  Who is they? What theater did they see Cats at? Why did they enjoy it? How did they feel after their flight was delayed?

To show rather than tell, you have to interrogate your story. You have to be more specific.

Here’s that example with some of those questions answered:

Tanya and James flew to New York city in a 747. They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms. “I can’t wait to see the show,” Tanya said. “You’re going to love it.”

James shook his head. “I don’t get it. It’s about cats who sing and dance? Sounds sorta dumb.”

Tanya smiled. “Just trust me.”

Their hotel was just a few blocks from the Foxwoods Theater so they walked. He had never seen buildings so tall or so many people walking on the street. When they got to the theater, Tanya noticed his eyes were a little wider, his mouth a little slacker. The foyer was covered in gold and white marble, with hundreds of people milling around in gowns and beautiful suits. He didn’t talk much. Finally, they took their seats, and the lights went down. He took her hand.

….

Let’s stop there. Once you get specific your story can get a lot longer.

But that’s a little better, right? Instead of “they,” we now see Tanya and James. We know a little more about them, that Tanya is a little more cultured, while James is more wary of it. We get a glimpse of the theater.

Interrogate Your Story

There’s still more room for specificity, though, which is why you always have to interrogate your story.

What was their flight like? Why is James so awed by New York? What’s the nature of their relationship?

Here’s another example with some of those questions filled in with specificity:

Tanya and James flew to New York in a 747. Tanya drank club sod and James had ginger ale. “Can I have the whole can?” he said. When they in LaGuardia, James turned to her and said, “Just so you know, that was the first time I’ve ever flown anywhere.”

“What?” said Tanya. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to know I hadn’t left Oklahoma.”

She took his hand and kissed it and held it to her cheek.

“I’ll still love you, even if you are an Okie hillbilly.”

They both smiled and he kissed her.

….

That’s definitely more specific, but it’s also getting longer. We haven’t even gotten to the theater yet.

And what that means is that while “show, don’t tell” is often good advice, showing isn’t always appropriate. Instead, keep in mind the counter-advice:

Tell to Show: When to Show and When to Tell

Sometimes, showing isn’t appropriate for your writing. Sometimes, if you want to write a great story, you have to tell.

How do you know when to show and when to tell? Here’s a brief guide:

Show if:

  • It is a pivotal scene, like the climactic moment in your story.
  • You are bringing the reader into a scene and need to briefly describe the details of the setting so they can picture it.
  • It is a moment of great conflict, drama, or crisis.
  • You are presenting an important, dramatic conversation and the dialogue between the two characters advances the plot.

In other words, show if the scene is exciting, dramatic, story-advancing, character-developing, and altogether interesting.

Tell if:

  • You are mostly giving information the reader needs to know but which doesn’t advance the plot.
  • It is a non-pivotal moment in your story.
  • You are linking two highly dramatic scenes and need to skip over a less dramatic period of time.

In other words, tell if the scene is boring, non-pivotal, not dramatic, and mostly exposition or informational.

I include an infographic that breaks it down visually below. Scroll down for a creative writing exercise to put this concept to use immediately.

Show Don't Tell Infographic

How to Find the Write Balance Between Show, Don’t Tell

How do you find the write balance between show, don’t tell (sorry for the pun, but you know I had to)?

Every story is like an accordion.

You can get infinitely more specific, but the consequence of specificity is length.

While you should want to be more specific, to show more than you tell, you’ll need to cut the detail that doesn’t add to your story.

Be more specific, but don’t bore us.

How about you? What do you think the right balance between showing and telling lies? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Let’s put “show, don’t tell” to use using the following writing exercise:

Rewrite the following writing prompt by being more specific.

They went to Los Angeles to see his parents.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, please give some feedback to a few other writers. I hope this is a community that helps each other improve.

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Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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