"Show, Don't Tell" Shouldn't Be Hard

An award-winning author explains the 8 ways to show your story.

Daunting is the edict of “show, don’t tell”. This innocent-sounding piece of advice induces anxiety in most writers. Some of us have lost sleep over whether we’re showing enough. Others have been led down the dark paths of over-describing physical traits, purple prose, and other bad habits.

Ironically, the advice violates itself. “Show, don’t tell” tells you what to do. It doesn’t show you how to do it.

In this article, I’ll explain the 8 different ways I show instead of tell. At the bottom of this email you’ll find an infographic. You can save and print it for your own reference.

Other names for “show, don’t tell”

  • Paint a picture. (I explained this in Mastering Fiction)

  • Dramatize, don’t explain.

  • Demonstrate, don’t declare.

  • Be specific with your words.

  • Don’t summarize.

  • Let it play out.

  • Eliminate thought verbs. (from Chuck Palahniuk)

  • Hemingway’s iceberg theory. (Wikipedia)

“If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There are seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” — Ernest Hemingway

#1 Add Sensory Details

The most straightforward way to show is to paint a picture with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. If your scene is missing vibrance (or realism), go into it with a fine brush and add bits of sensory detail.

Avoid using opinions when adding sensory details. A flower does not look “beautiful”, it looks red with orange tips that flutter in the sunlight. A stew does not smell “delicious”, it smells meaty and buttery with a hint of spice. Beautiful and delicious are opinions, not sensory details. (See my article Kill Your Adjectives for an in-depth analysis.)

#2 Show Character Traits With Behavior

Rather than listing your character’s traits, show the way your character behaves and interacts with others. Show a character's kindness by having them help someone in need. Show their intelligence by having them solve a difficult problem.

In the opening of The Hunger Games, instead of telling us Katniss was a “rugged survivalist focused on family”, Suzanne Collins showed this by having Katniss sneak out of the fenced area to hunt for her family.

You can also use behavior to show emotions, intentions, and thoughts. For example:

  • Jack, a bad skier, was terrified of skiing down the steep hill. (Telling)

  • Jack stood at the top of the hill, gripping his ski poles tightly. His heartbeat pounded like a sledgehammer under his helmet. (Showing)

#3 Show Circumstances Behind Emotions

The best storytellers achieve emotional resonance by showing the circumstances that gave rise to the emotions. They trust that the universal origins of feelings are universally understood. They know the best way to deliver emotions is via empathy.

By showing the root cause of your character’s fear, you’ll help the reader feel the same fear. By showing the circumstances that led to heartbreak, you’ll make the reader experience a similar heartbreak.

Here’s what Ernest Hemingway had to say about showing emotions:

  • “Find what gave you emotion; what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear so that the reader can see it too.” — Ernest Hemingway

  • “I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt, rather that what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things which produced the emotion that you experienced.“ — Ernest Hemingway

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#4 Use Figurative Language

Figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism) make for excellent showing. Use them strategically, whenever you need the reader to hold a strong mental image. This way, you maximize the effect of figurative language without tiring your readers out.

Below is a passage from Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a Booker Prize winning novel. Pay attention to how the figurative language gives visual power to the scene:

“The storm was borne on greenish winds. It began as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced, and when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury. The seething deck, the strange whip of light and shadows cast by the sails that snapped and strained above it, the palpable fear of the sailors as they fought to hold the barque on her course - it was the stuff of nightmare, and Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the goldfields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself.”

Can you spot the instances of figurative language?

  • “when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury” (Metaphor, Personification)

  • “the seething deck, the strange whip of light” (Metaphor, Personification)

  • “it was the stuff of nightmare” (Metaphor)

  • “Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the goldfields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself” (Hyperbole, Personification)

#5 Make The Setting Come To Life

Having a vivid setting helps you avoid White Room Syndrome. A vibrant setting will help you set the right mood and atmosphere for your story.

Approach setting like a painter. Your focus is your reader’s focus. The details about the setting (or the way the character interacts with the setting) form the visual and emotional foundation of a scene. For example, in No Country for Old Men, everyone remembers the scratch marks left on linoleum floor by the deputy’s shoes as the he struggled for his last breath.

Here’s what Anton Chekov had to say about making your setting come to life: 

"In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball." — Anton Chekov

#6 Add Layers Of Subtext

Subtext is everything that is implied or hinted at beneath the surface of the text. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s what the characters avoid talking about. (Mastering Fiction students know this as “leaving things unsaid”.)

Subtext is essential for showing motivations, character dynamics, themes, and suspense. Let’s break it down:

  • Complex Emotions and Motivations: A character may say one thing but their tone, body language, or actions suggest a different emotion or intention. Subtext helps you show this type of cognitive dissonance.

  • Relationship Dynamics: Rather than explicitly stating how characters feel about each other, you can use subtext to convey underlying tensions, conflicts, and affections.

  • Themes: You can use subtext to explore deeper meanings without spelling it out.

  • Suspense and Intrigue: You can create suspense and intrigue by hinting at hidden agendas, secrets, or underlying conflicts that drive the narrative forward.

#7 Reveal Beliefs Through Conflict

Conflict is the lifeblood of dialogue and the backbone of good storytelling. It is also the best way to show a character’s beliefs.

Instead of having your characters profess their beliefs, put their beliefs head-to-head with someone else who thinks differently. Put them in situations where their beliefs are tested. Show the characters acting on their beliefs and values, then show the reader the outcome.

Some of the best works of literature are fundamentally about the conflicting beliefs of the characters (e.g. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov).

#8 Use Strong Verbs And Nouns

Lastly, an underrated way to show your story to use strong verbs and specific nouns. The vividity of your reader’s mental picture depends on your word choice. Show your story by replacing inactive verbs with active verbs and vague nouns with highly-specific nouns.

For example:

  • “there was an orange on my table” vs “an orange sat on my table”

  • “the candle’s light reflected in the mirror” vs “the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass” (pierglass is a mirror placed on a wall between two windows)

If you want to read more about word choice, here are two Fictionalist articles that address verbs and nouns:

Infographic: Show, Don’t Tell

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