"Show, don’t tell" is a prime example of an idiom phrased so vaguely that it confuses more people than it actually helps. I promise you, though, it is helpful. You just have to be in on the underlying meaning.

So, here’s what “show, don’t tell” really means:

Write around the word you mean.

What? Okay, yeah that’s maybe a little cryptic. Let’s look at some examples!

"Telling":

He was angry at Julia.

"Showing":

He put down his paper and stared at Julia, his eyes glassy with blind incomprehension. Then, slowly at first, his face growing redder by the second, his muscles tightened in his jaw and neck and hands until the newspaper crumpled in his grip. He was on his feet, taller and more imposing than she’d ever seen him, and she could hear his teeth gnashing from across the room.

The point is to take a word like angry and describe the sorts of things the character would do or say while angry instead of coming right out and telling the reader that the character was angry. Details are important, and “showing” will always give the reader more information about the character than just “telling” would.

Another example? Don’t mind if I do!

"Telling":

It was early spring.

"Showing":

The winter frost was still melting into rain, and some days were cooler than others. The grass still crunched, but this time it was with crisp newness and not with ice, and the buds on the trees and hedgerows hinted at beautiful colors to come.

Here I’m writing around the word spring, describing the effects of spring without actually telling the reader it’s spring I’m taking about.

A little while ago I answered an ask where I talked about how “telling” might be a useful placeholder. What did I mean by that?

"Telling" as a placeholder:

They went to the store to get food for dinner.

Replaced with “showing”:

When Jan and Larry headed out on their quest for tortillas and taco seasoning, they didn’t initially think of the supermarket, but their normal grocery store, Joe’s Foods, was inexplicably closed on Tuesdays—one of its many quirks. 

Larry had actually gotten out of the car to check the wrought iron gate in front of the double doors that Joe Parson, the owner and operator of Joe’s Foods, had installed to keep the neighborhood kids from, as he’d phrased it, “visiting during the closing hours.”

"Dammit, Joe!" Larry’d shouted through the gate into the darkened windows of the store. Joe wasn’t there, of course, but it must have made Larry feel better just to curse a while. After all, it was a drive out of the way to get to Joe’s Foods in the first place.

When Larry returned to the driver’s seat of their sedan, Jan suggested heading to the supermarket franchise that had asserted itself on Blighterly Road six months ago.

"We can’t go there," Larry said. "They don’t sell ‘real food’!" Well, Larry’s interpretation of "real food" was debatable, but there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter anyway, so off they went toward Blighterly Road with Larry in a sour way.

You get the idea. I just wrote in “They went to the store to get food for dinner” as a placeholder until I could write what actually happened during their excursion to the market. There are still some aspects of the “showing” example that are technically “telling.” For instance, I could have actually written dialogue for Jan when she’d suggested they go to the supermarket. Dialogue is, generally, part of “showing”, so choosing to omit dialogue and merely summarize what a character said is a choice of style. Let me repeat that in a broader sense: the choice to “show” or “tell” is one of style. Too much in either direction is poisonous for a narrative’s pacing and understandability.

A few more little things about “showing” and “telling”:

So, “show, don’t tell” is not always the case. It would be better to say “show and tell”, since the decision of how much description to use in your story is a very personal matter of style. Hopefully now, though, you understand how powerful “showing” and “telling” can be, and you will apply this new-found information to your work. I wouldn’t want your readers to suffer through purple prose because some writing help blog told you once that you’re only ever allowed to “show.”

Next time someone says “show, don’t tell” to you, ask them to be more specific. Ask them to “show” you where you need better description instead of just “telling” you how to write. Otherwise, there might be throat-punching.

More on “show, don’t tell”:

Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this article or other questions about writing, you can message us here!

-C


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