• 101
    Best Websites
    for Writers

    Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter and get the 101 Best Websites for Writers download.

  • Guide to Literary Agents

The Value of “Show, Don’t Tell” In Your Writing

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns.

When I first started to write fiction and send my manuscripts out for feedback, the first and most frequent thing my readers said was “Show, don’t tell.” In theory, I understood what this meant. But it was almost impossible for me to put it into practice after comments such as, “Why don’t you show your character sitting in a café getting frustrated with her friend? I’d really like to see that happening, rather than just being told it’s happening. It would give us a lot more insight into their characters.”

Okay. So how do I go about that? I’m not sure I understand how you can’t see it happening when I’m telling you it’s happening. What’s the difference?

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: MarkR won.)

 

 

       

Guest column by Jessica Bell, author of the writing guide,
SHOW & TELL IN A NUTSHELL: DEMONSTRATED TRANSITIONS
FROM TELLING TO SHOWING. Australian-native contemporary
fiction author and poet who also makes a living as an editor and
writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such
as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education
First and Cengage Learning.  She is the Co-Publishing Editor of
Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the summer event, the
Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca.
For more information about Jessica, please visit her
blog, her Twitter, and her Facebook. There are four different
versions of her book: the US paperback, the UK paperback, the
US e-book, and the UK e-book.

 

I never truly understood the difference until I’d accomplished it by accident one day. My motivation was that I needed to increase the word count in one of my manuscripts. I had a 60,000-word novel that needed 80,000–100,000 before I could submit it to agents.

I combed through my manuscript, marking scenes I thought I could expand. By the time I’d finished reworking the first scene, the concept clicked. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel. Simply put, does me saying Hilary felt scared make you feel scared? Of course not.

(Will a literary agent search for you online after you query them?)

This is why I felt the need to publish a pocket guide: to show writers, how to SHOW, INSTEAD OF TELL. It’s one resource I craved and couldn’t find during the early years. I needed real examples that clearly demonstrated the transition from telling to showing, in a small, concise, non-threatening, non-overwhelming format. Something I could dip into without getting lost in the jungle of technical jargon that I never really understood until I Googled my fingertips into flames. I learned better by example. By physically doing and reworking, making mistakes and fixing them through trial and error.

No matter how entertaining, diverse, concise, or detailed, a writing craft book is, it’s not going to work magic on you, it’s not going to suddenly make you a brilliant writer simply by reading it. You need to use what you read and learn in your own writing. Because that’s when you have those a-ha moments. That’s when it really sticks.

In Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing, you will find sixteen real scenes depicting a variety of situations, emotions, and characteristics which clearly demonstrate how to turn telling into showing. Dispersed throughout, and at the back of the book, are blank pages to take notes as you read. A few short writing prompts are also provided.

(Read tips on writing a query letter.)

I tried to make this pocket guide an excellent learning tool for aspiring writers and also a light, convenient, and easy solution to honing your craft no matter how broad your writing experience. Keep it in the side pocket of your school bag, throw it in your purse, or even carry it around in the pocket of your jeans or jacket, to enhance your skills, keep notes, and jot down story ideas, anywhere, anytime.

I also welcome questions via email, concerning the content of this book, or about showing vs. telling in general, at showandtellinanutshell@gmail.com.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: MarkR won.)

 


Join the Writer’s Digest VIP Program today!

You’ll get a subscription to the magazine, a
subscription to WritersMarket.com, discounts
on almost everything you buy, a download,
and much more great stuff.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts
  • Print Circulation Form

    Did you love this article? Subscribe Today & Save 58%

88 Responses to The Value of “Show, Don’t Tell” In Your Writing

  1. Jen1313 says:

    I experienced the same problem you did with showing instead of telling. I’m getting better at it, but sometimes find myself slipping into the telling habit again. Your book sounds like a useful resource!

  2. Hannah O says:

    I agree that showing enables the reader become more involved with the character, with his or her actions and emotions. However, there’s some conflicting advice out there, which say that rules are ment to be broken and this “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the rules often discussed. They say showing is overrated and if telling works, just do it.

    I’m all for breaking the rules, but I realize telling can often be weak and bland; on the other hand, showing can be overdone by some writers, making me wish they would stop already. I think a guide with great examples like you’ve mentioned will clearly show (pun intended!) how it’s done and how we can strike the balance enough to engage our readers.

  3. Jessica,
    What an excellent idea! Why hasn’t this book been put together a lot sooner? This is a concept that many writers struggle with; showing vs telling.
    I love to bury my nose in grammar books (sheesh, I sound like such a geek!) and this would be another interesting read!
    Thank you for publishing!

  4. BookLover2 says:

    This book is exactly what I need to make my NaNoWriMo novel even better! I have always heard the “Show, don’t tell” expression but no one ever thinks to give examples as to how this should be accomplished. This would also help my ESOL students who always struggle with writing. Thank you for publishing this much needed book!

  5. Janna says:

    I’m being held captive by this ditzy woman character in my novel. She keeps saying, “Get me right this time. I’m not the effervescence bottle of saccharine you portray.” There it is. I’m stuck with a character who talks back. I suspect your pocket-book (what a wonderful concept as I’m always writing on the go) will give my characters the vividness they deserve. Thank you.

  6. txtootsie says:

    I like what you said about a cinematic view. I read somewhere that to show rather than tell, pretend you are following your character around with a camera and write what the camera sees. It has helped my writing trememdously.

  7. writer_guy says:

    Squinting. Cool, white flash from beam of light slicing through ceiling. Radiation? Secret alien weapon? Catastrophic failure of building’s heating and cooling system?

    No.

    Epiphany.

  8. Kaylyn says:

    Oh my goodness. I could use this so much. I hear the ‘show don’t tell’ all the time with my picture books, but can’t figure out how to do it. I always thought the pictures would do it for me.

  9. Scott M says:

    One other comment…It would have been helpful if Ms. Bell had included an example of “showing, not telling” in her column – perhaps even one of the examples from her book. Thanks to some of the commenters who were kind enough to do so!

  10. Judit without h says:

    I’ve seen some nice examples for “show don’t tell”, but I did have to hunt for them – and sometimes find one while looking for something completely different… And then, reading about it and applying the knowledge are quite different. As different as showing from telling, I guess. Seems we’re getting some more chance for that. Can’t wait to check it out!

  11. jevon says:

    This book sounds like a great resource. As a new author, I am struggling a bit with really showing a character’s emotions. I think I’m getting close after 10,000′s of words, but still haven’t grasped it as yet.

  12. Sharann says:

    Eureka! Exactly the book my weak words are longing for. Thanks for the giveaway!

  13. brittb142 says:

    This sounds like an awesome resource to consult while writing, and I think it would be a great tool for me in working with my own book. I will definitely consider purchasing it. Maybe I could even win it! :)
    Thanks!!
    Brittany

  14. karendodd says:

    Your book is exactly what I need; something short and to the point with real examples. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve gone down rabbit holes while searching a book or online for examples of Show, Don’t Tell. Before I know it my writing time has been gobbled up!

  15. izzybeedow says:

    Using my toes to push my rolling chair backwards, squinting at the computer screen. I ran my fingers through my hair, finally finding my reading glasses. Since my last birthday, with over forty little flames above my cake, my eyesight has been diminishing. Is it not enough that I wear contacts? I need reading glasses too? no, what I really need is a good book helping me with my showing, not telling……

  16. That’s funny, someone was blogging about this yesterday, and I told them how I used my first “Show, don’t tell” comment on a friend’s WIP. This would be great for her!

  17. Dana19018 says:

    This sounds like a wonderful resource to have. I try very hard to show and not tell. In fact, in helping to proof read for a publisher recently, I told her the same thing. Show me. Don’t tell. I don’t want to read page after page of boring diatribes. Give me character interaction. There was a breakup? Okay, give me the ugly so I feel it. Give me the scene that will stick in my mind so I know how much that character is hurting. Now the question is-can I see that in my own writing? I like to think so, but sometimes it helps when you see good examples of what to do so you can…well, do it. :)

    Would love a chance to read your book!

    Best,

    Dana Wright

    dana19018 (at) gmail dot com

  18. Graelyn says:

    I agree. Practical examples are always better. When I read Stephen Kings’s memoir “On Writing”, he explained how he learned more from his newspaper editor in 5 minutes than he did in any class. I found his examples very helpful. This appears to be just what the aspiring writer needs and I hope that I win a copy of it for my library.

  19. billfarkas says:

    Sounds like a must-have! Perhaps Santa will put one in my stocking…

  20. deedeekm says:

    it would be great to have a reminder as I repeatedly fall into bad habits :)

  21. mkarolyi says:

    When I read the line “successful showing … uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel”, I had a true AHA moment. With that concept in mind, I can now go through my writing and determine whether I’m telling instead of showing (and make the necessary corrections). Thank you for this wonderful insight into an often poorly outlined topic.

  22. RedHeadedViking says:

    I definitely need to pick up a copy of this! I am currently working on revisions to my first novel with an independent editor and this is probably the area that I get “dinged” on most often. I’m getting better at it, but the process still hasn’t completely “clicked”.

  23. A great post on an important topic. As a writing teacher in a past life, I found this one of the most difficult concepts to teach effectively. Showing doesn’t always mean not telling, and not every style of writing lends itself to simple interpretations of the idea. I wish I’d known about this resource when I was teaching as it would have been invaluable. As far as what’s going on in my MFA program, it has definitely come up, although not with the detail that it is due. Ultimately, showing and not telling gets to voice, and voice is everything in the end.

  24. Clonsley says:

    This is something that I am quite bad at right now. I’m enjoying the challenge of NaNoWriMo, getting the words down, but the scenes are very mechanical. Every now and then a paragraph pops out of my head that really captures you, and invariably it is showing, not telling.

    This book certainly sounds like something I can use to help me with this. Thanks for writing it. :-)

  25. paurry says:

    Love this! Show don’t tell sounds so great and even easy–in theory. What a great resource you’ve created. paurry (at) msn (dot) com

  26. tavi says:

    I’ve been telling my friend for years to “show” me what’s happening in her stories. She’s a good writer, but she needs to take her craft to the next level. Your book would be the perfect Christmas gift.

  27. DebbieL says:

    This sounds like a great book! I’m always on the lookout for really good books that will help me to be a better writer. I know that “showing” is very important in a story and that it can be hard to get it right.

  28. BlueFedora says:

    The hardest part about showing not telling is the translation of the scene I have in my mind to the sheet of paper in front of me (well, nowadays, the simulated sheet in my word-processing program). And the more exampls I see, the sharper that image becomes and the easier it is to make that transition. So, even if I don’t get selected, I’ll definietly ask a jolly old elf to leave one under the fir tree in slightly over a month from today.

  29. msranger says:

    “Pick me! Pick me,” she said jumping up and down, arms waving wildly in the air. “I need this.”

  30. kurtpatt says:

    I love the fact that the book does what its title says– shows us how to do this, rather than telling us. Nice work! I need a copy.

    Patti Kurtz

  31. Scott M says:

    I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo and most of my scenes consist of telling rather than showing – I’m just plowing through the story to get it down as a “draft zero” (not even enough to call it a first draft). I know I will need to expand these scenes when I start revising the story and convert the telling into showing. Your book looks like just the kind of tool that would be practical for the revision phase of writing.

  32. markr says:

    This is probably the primary issue I struggle with in my writing. It’s so hard to see when you’re telling instead of showing in your own writing. I look forward to learning from your experience in your book.

  33. Holley says:

    I have issues with this concept as well, now that I think about it. I think I’ll work on that, thanks for writing this entry!

  34. dougero1 says:

    It’s not easy to remember this little gem. Without a doubt it is better to show rather than tell. Thanks for writing this helpful entry.

  35. Brenda Maxfield says:

    Yes, it told me that, too.

    I said that I loved the title of your book. Grabbed my attention. Sometimes we all slide into telling rather than showing….

  36. DG Hudson says:

    I just received an error message that I’m posting too quickly?? And it wiped my comment. . . sigh.

    I did say in the first try that I’m reading the ebook version and would love a print copy if I’m lucky enough. I’m often needing help in reducing incidents of telling, and have read other books about the problem. I like the brevity of Jessica’s book. (we’re all time-crunched)

  37. simeon says:

    The book sounds great. I’ve even searched Google for examples of “Show don’t tell.” At this point, I struggle most with what I can still “tell”, in order to move the story along, and what to “show,” which is how the story comes alive.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      You need to think what your pivotal moments are (both small and large) and show those as much as possible. For example, we don’t need you to show us a full scene of back story if it doesn’t directly affect the main plot. Thanks for commenting. Good luck!

  38. eyvonner says:

    I can’t wait to see specific examples for showing! I need practice doing this and recognizing when I need to do it.

  39. chemikalguy says:

    It’s funny. A few years ago it was ‘Show don’t tell. Then, others came out and said, no, tell, don’t show. I like the middle-of-the-road approach personally. There are too many situations where you simply can’t show, or can’t do it effectively, but the old-school ‘show don’t tellers’ had hard and fast rules in many cases. This sounds like a breath of fresh air. I’ll definitely put it on my reading list.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      I know exactly what you mean. This is also why I have the following note at the end of the book’s introduction: “It’s not essential to show every single scene. Sometimes you do need some telling in order to move the necessary, but not so important moments, forward. You’ll discover the appropriate balance, and a more sophisticated way of telling, with lots of reading and writing practice.”

  40. sparkvoice says:

    I love the idea of a pocket guide with areas to make notes, as I routinely carry a pen, notebook, and book around with me whereever I go. I have a fear of not remembering my ideas, or having to re-read something to get my ‘ah-hah’ out of it.

    The idea of sharing tips/tricks to speed up the learning of others is also really appealing. Countless people aspire to write a book, and have it published – this might be the tool that helps one of us take our writing to the next level.

  41. I’ve been struggling with this too. Just not entirely sure how to accomplish it. Thanks for the chance!

  42. JLMILL says:

    I love to write, I have written poetry, and memoir, I only had creative writing in highschool. I love the book you have written to help others like me, this would be a wonderful asset!

    Thank you and God bless,

  43. LynnRodz says:

    This definitely is one of the harder concepts of writing. We’re so use to telling a story, rather than showing a story through words that we can’t seem to grasp that subtlety. It goes back to our school days as children when we had Show and Tell. Even though we brought something in to show the class, most of the time, we placed the object down on the teacher’s desk and proceeded to “tell” about it. Your book is going to be a valuable tool!

  44. jdmstudios says:

    Love those aha moments! Sounds like your book is a great resource…exactly what I need :)

  45. I got stuck in the loop of what book were you writing that you added 20,000-40,000 more words to?

  46. Khara House says:

    One of my favorite ways to make sure my characters are “evoking emotions” is to date them. Yep … I’ll go on a day-date with a character, live in his/her skin, discover (or rediscover) his/her voice, and then write through their eyes. I’ll eat what they’d eat for breakfast. I’ll wear what they’d wear. I’ll avoid contact with other people so I can talk how they’d talk (for some, this is wiser than for others … never go on a character day-date on Sunday!) .. etc. It’s a fun way to make sure no matter what your character is saying, they more than say it–they breathe it.

  47. Debbie says:

    I like to write poetry. This topic is very strong in that area, especially when many poems are understood in a piecemeal fashion. I believe if my “showing” can be strengthened, then the reader might be able to understand and feel a greater majority of my poem’s message and feeling. I would love the opportunity to use your book as a resource. Thank you.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      I write poetry too, and I think you’ll find this will actually help you in that area, as my “showing” isn’t written just for the sake of demonstrating craft. Some pieces are actually quite poetic. Especially scene 14. Thanks for commenting!

  48. Colossians323 says:

    This book sounds like it could be a useful tool in my writing resource section. Writers help one another learn concerning the craft is something I found true a long time ago. It sounds like helping other writers is the big reason you wrote this book. I like that idea.

  49. autumngrace says:

    If I understand this correctly, writing “Hilary felt scared,” would be an example of telling. Replacing that phrase with others such as “the hair on the back of her neck stood up,” “her blood ran cold,” and others would be examples of showing. One would need to write out (show) how someone feels (felt, as in Hilary felt scared) when they are scared, sad, happy, angry….sort of like writing out the biological and/or mental changes in a person when they feel a certain emotion. Something like “I was angry, so I slapped him.” rather than, “I felt angry.” Am I anywhere in the ballpark with this?

    • Jessica Bell says:

      You’re close :) But you’d need to watch for clichés like “blood ran cold”. And in the “I was angry, so I slapped him.” you are still telling us that you feel angry. Something more along the lines of (and this is just off the top of my head and nowhere near perfect) “I clenched my teeth as my face grew hot and slapped him.” There are more detailed examples in the book for you to get a better idea. :)

  50. juliette19 says:

    Thank you for writing a book to clear this up! “Show, don’t tell” is certainly something we hear all the time, but we don’t always know what it means in every situation. Can’t wait to read the book!

  51. ianchandler says:

    Sounds like an interesting read. The cinematic aspect is intriguing. I might pick this up even if I don’t win, ha!

  52. wordwizard01 says:

    It sounds like this could be a great resource not only for writers but for teachers teaching writing. I’m very interested in checking it out.

  53. KarenLange says:

    It’s great to see Jessica here! I was just thinking about this topic last night while working on my WIP. This sounds like a wonderful resource. I think I need to check it out!

  54. silygoos says:

    I could really use help with this. I went from telling in narrative to telling in dialogue but not showing and I’m eager to learn how I can do this even better.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      silygoos, that’s another common mistake writers make early on: unnatural dialogue to give information the writer thinks the reader should know. It’s so very easy to do. But once you realize how to avoid it, your writing will be so much stronger.

      Good luck!

  55. Martin Armenta says:

    This in one of the most difficult concepts for me to grasp. I am a classical story”teller” and my subject is Greek Mythology. I am not only unsure of how to: “Show, Don’t Tell” – I am also confused as to the applicability of this process in my genre.

  56. JanelG says:

    I have been trying to make sure I show, not tell, but sometimes I find myself slipping back into telling without even realizing it. A book like this is a great way to reinforce the best ways to do this before beginning a project.

  57. Andrea M says:

    Wow – this sounds like a helpful book!

  58. Tammy Denton says:

    Exactly what I need, a pocket guide to Show, Don’t Tell. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around without concrete examples. Your guide fills a gap in my knowledge.

    Thanks for writing it.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Hi Tammy,

      It is so much easier learning by example, isn’t it!

      Thanks for commenting!

      Jessica

      • indigesjon says:

        A much necessary resource. I offer my interpretation:
        TELL: John hates Jennifer. SHOW: John tears up Jennifer’s photo.
        TELL: John secretly loves Judy. SHOW: John steals a photo of Judy from her album (when her back is turned) and slips it into his pocket.
        TELL: John is jealous when he sees Peter getting Judy’s attention. SHOW: John spits in Peter’s hat (when Peter’s back is turned).
        TELL: John is a low-life, creepy, and probably mentally sick pain in the butt. SHOW: All of the above!
        Am I getting the hang of this? :)

  59. Lina Moder says:

    This sounds like such a wonderful resource – and I completely agree with you. Examples help you see concepts better, especially since you have an example for “tell” and then for “show”.

    Thank you so much:)

    linamoder at gmail dot com

Leave a Reply