Question: What does it mean when writers are told, “show, don’t tell”, and how can this technique be used in storytelling?



The best stories are those that fully immerse readers and keep them engaged from start to finish. There are a number of different literary devices and techniques writers can use to draw readers into their narrative, and one that is discussed often in writing circles is “show, don’t tell”. This descriptive technique allows readers to experience the story through character actions, thoughts, and senses rather than through exposition.

Tell versus show in narrative writing

As a writer, your superpower is your use of descriptive language to allow readers to picture and understand what your characters are seeing and experiencing on their journey. The more readers can envision what it’s like to be in your characters’ shoes, the more they can relate and remain engaged.

A common writing mistake in storytelling is using too much narration to relay details to readers. This can make the reader feel like you are dictating the story to them, leaving them feeling disconnected or detached. Signs you may be excessively “telling” the reader in your writing include:

•  Using long paragraphs of prose
•  Filling in gaps with lots of backstory
•  Including long paragraphs of internal monologue

Telling can be effective in brief passages where the writer needs to convey factual information about the characters or world that are essential to the story, or when transitioning from one scene to the next.

 Conversely, to “show” a reader means to provide descriptive elements that bring in sensory details or illustrative dialogue that display a character’s actions, reactions, thoughts, feelings, or senses. For example, don't tell the reader your main character enters a room. “Take the reader into the room” by describing the sunlight beaming through the window, illuminating the dancing dust particles and intensifying the smell of musty, antique furniture.

Using descriptive language is not only an effective technique for fiction writers, but also for memoir writers sharing their personal story. By including these specific details, you are evoking emotions in the reader, bringing the scenes and characters to life, setting the story’s tone, and allowing them to feel more intimately involved.

Showing readers using all five senses

The human body uses five primary senses to experience the world – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Your human characters in your story are no different (unless they are superhuman), and it’s up to you, the writer, to provide sensory descriptions showing how they are experiencing the world you have created. Most writers have a good understanding of how to describe what their characters see, but often underestimate the importance of including the other four senses.

Visual imagery engages sense of sight and includes visual descriptions of what your character or characters can see. Descriptive words can be related to color, size, shape, mass, distance, finish, and more.

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
                                                                                                             - Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper


Auditory imagery engages sense of hearing and includes descriptions of the way things sound such as volume, pitch, and rhythm. Literary devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration can also be used to create interesting sounds with words themselves and bring attention to certain elements in the story.

His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.
                                                                                                                - Anthony Doerr’s All The Light we Cannot See


Olfactory imagery engages sense of smell and includes descriptions that denote a smell as good or bad, and often times, can be a direct trigger of memories or emotions. Sense of smell is closely tied to sense of taste, so the descriptive words used are similar.

The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.
                                                             - Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

Writers should use sensory descriptions in their writing that use all five senses.

Gustatory imagery engages sense of taste and includes descriptions around flavor, texture, and mouth sensations. This sense is often underutilized by writers, but can be important when food plays a significant role in the story, or when taste can be used to describe what a character is experiencing.

He would never forget his first taste of English fog. A wet white wall that ate through clothes, flesh and senses, letting him loose in a limbo world to face the evil English Spirits. Were they evil though?
                                                                                                                         - Marjorie Darke’s The First of Midnight

Tactile imagery engages sense of touch and includes descriptions around what your character or characters feel in relation to temperature, texture, mass, pressure, and pain.

The tree feels splintery, nasty to my touch; it feels Floridian, more reptile than vegetable, more stucco than stone. I do loathe this state, they’re Elba.
                                                                                   - Allan Gurganus’ Plays Well with Others

When integrating the five senses into your writing, avoid using “telling” words and phrases for your characters’ experiences like “I heard,” “She saw,” and “He smelled,” as these are too generic, creating more distance between your reader and the story. Instead, use strong verbs, visual language, and literary devices like metaphors and similes to make your setting come alive, and to show your characters interacting with the setting. The most effective sensory descriptions are those directly related to key attributes of your character, setting, conflict, or other element of your story. Make sure they matter to the story rather than bogging it down with unnecessary words.

Author and writing teacher Georgia Lee encourages practicing this type of exercise to get started with writing sensory descriptions:

Think of an event in your life and the emotion it evoked in you. Write a page or two about that event without using "I felt" or "I feel." Use your other senses including sight, smell, taste, and sound to describe the scene.

To help you brainstorm, you can find a list of sensory words for each of the five senses HERE.

Showing readers through actions

Another effective way to show and not tell in a story is to include some sort of action in every scene. The action doesn’t have to be intense like what you would find in a thriller novel with fist fights or shoot outs, but can simply be a description of a character’s body language or movement.  Character actions and reactions can often be a gateway to how they are thinking and feeling, deepening your character development. Don’t just tell the reader your character is angry; show them by having your character throw a glass of water across the living room, shattering it against a wall into a million pieces and soaking the Persian rug.

Bringing action into a scene can create drama, heighten the tension, and quicken the pacing of the story, all of which are essential for keeping readers engaged and the story moving forward. It can also reveal things about your characters, their relationships, and how they are interacting with their environment.

Writers can show readers important story elements through action and dialogue.Showing readers through dialogue

Weaving realistic dialogue into a story can have many benefits including breaking up the narrative, giving readers context, and allowing the story to unfold naturally through conversation. Dialogue is not only about what is being said, but also about what is left unsaid because people don’t always say exactly what they mean, leaving room for interpretation. Dialogue can be used to show what characters are thinking and feeling, their personality, their relationships with others, any underlying tension, what they might be hiding, and what their motivations are. One of the other things dialogue can do is reveal traits about characters by the way they speak such as education level, region or country from which they come, or age, simply by how they talk. Dialogue can also be an effective way to reveal interesting facts about characters without having to say it directly.

For example, instead of giving backstory on a situation that took place between two characters, have them engage in a conversation about it. And, rather than stating where a character is from, allow the reader to make a deduction through authentic dialogue.

Ultimately, writers have to find the right balance between showing and telling in a story, providing imagery and sensory details when it can add depth to a character, the setting, the conflict, or the plot. We recommend using trusted critique partners such as a writing group or selected beta readers to help identify where you can improve your story with more vivid descriptions and details.

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