What it Means, Why it Matters – and How to Add Drama to Your Novel
“Show Don’t Tell” is one of the oldest pieces of advice to new writers, but it can be kinda confusing.
What exactly is the difference between Showing and Telling? And is “Showing” always right? And is Telling always wrong?
As we’ll see, “Show, Don’t Tell” is good advice in certain circumstances. Not just good advice, in fact, but absolutely essential to any half-decent novel.
At the same time, virtually every novel ever written contains passages that are told, not shown . . . and that’s fine. You just have to understand which mode of writing to use where.
These things get confusing when spoken about in the abstract, so we’ll use plenty of examples to show you exactly what’s what.
Sounds good? Then let’s motor.
What is ‘show, don’t tell’?
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique authors use to add drama to a novel. Rather than telling readers what’s happening, authors use this technique to show drama unfold on the page. ‘Telling’ is factual and avoids detail; while ‘showing,’ is detailed and places the human subject at the centre of the drama.
Show, Don’t Tell: what this actually means
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov once advised.
Here’s an example of what he means:
The night was cold and moonlit. The sleigh moved fast through the forest.
Showing: Ekaterina was shocked by the cold. She’d known winters before, but never this far north and never this deep. Burrowed under furs as she was, she still felt her eyelashes freeze. There were crystals of ice on her face where her own breath had frozen solid. It was a clear night, and they raced through the whispering pines, like a feather drawn over a sheet of silver. It seemed magical. Impossible. Temporary. Forbidden.
What do you notice?
You’ll instantly notice a number of things here.
How to recognise the “Telling” mode
Any piece of prose written in the “telling” mode:
Is an efficient way to communicate data.
Prefers to avoid detail, and is happy to convey broad overarching messages. (“It was cold.”)
Is not necessarily human-centred, and as a result . . .
Does not, in general, stir the heart.
How to recognise the “Showing” mode
Any piece of prose written in the “showing” mode:
Is human-centred (usually, though sometimes only by implication).
Is a slower, richer, more expansive way to communicate.
Is not efficient – quite the reverse!
Tends to place the human subject right at the centre of things, and as a consequence . .
Can often stir the heart.
An example of showing vs telling from literature
You want an example of showing from literature? OK, try this:
The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the garden and even the beach. [That’s my version of how a “telling” version might go.”
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.
You want to guess which method Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby? I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t the first of those ways.
An extended example of Telling vs Showing
One more example – this one a little bit more extended. The example here comes from my own book, The Deepest Grave, which I’ve chosen just to make the point that these rules and disciplines apply to all of us. To Scott Fitzgerald. To me. To you.
So, here’s one more example, as before given in in two possible versions.
Bowen, Katie and FIona find a sheet of vellum in an old Welsh church.
Bowen lifts the 1953 fish-restaurant newspaper out of the wooden wall box.
‘I suppose that can go.’
He looks glumly at the mess behind the cupboard, knowing that it’ll be his job to clean it. Katie looks into the box, now missing its newspaper floor.
Glances once, then looks more sharply.
‘No, that’s not right,’ she says, and starts picking at the bottom with a fingernail.
I already looked under the newspaper and saw just the pale, bleached colour of old pine – pine that has never seen the sun – but that was me being dumb. Me not knowing how to see.
Katie picks at the bottom and it comes away.
A sheet of paper, blank on the upper side, but with writing in clear purplish-black ink on the lower. Latin text. A hard-to-read medieval hand.
I’ve given you quite an extended chunk of ‘showing’ here because quoting at length makes a few further points very clear.
As well as everything we’ve said so far, Showing:
Is dramatic – it’s story told as drama. You could actually imagine the long-form version of the scene above as something played out on a stage or in a movie. Literally every time that you could imagine a piece of writing as a stage or movie play, you are reading something that is shown not told.
Often involves dialogue. It’s no coincidence. Movies involve actors saying their lines – and again, literally every time you encounter proper dialogue in a book, you are reading a scene that is shown, not told. In the example above, the characters immediately started talking about what they had found, thus emphasising the dramatic quality of the moment.
Plays out in real time. Take a look one more time at those two passages just above. The first – basically “three people find vellum” – isn’t real time at all. There’s no sense of elapsed time there at all. It’s told like a news report on CNN or the BBC. In the extended passage – the one from my actual book – you could imagine a clock on the wall, counting out the seconds as the scene elapsed. If you had to make a guess at how long it took from Bowen fishing out the newspaper to Katie finding the vellum, you could actually make a reasonable guess.
These thoughts lead us to the next massive point you have to know about the whole showing / telling thing:
Namely, why people get so obsessed by it.
Show, Don’t Tell: Why it matters
People get obsessed with showing vs telling. Here’s the reason why.
OK. Here’s a question for you:
Why do readers read books?
That’s a real question, and you should think about your answer.
If you think about it, you’ll probably give me some answer like:
Readers want to get involved in a story.
They want to experience emotion through the lives and adventures of fictional characters.
They want to get swept up in other people’s dramas.
And yes. Exactly.
And to immerse ourselves in the experiences of those characters, we need to feel them as the characters themselves feel them – which is real time, minute by minute.
That’s the whole deal right there.
If you want to get your readers emotionally engaged, you have to plunge them into the drama of the moment. It would be no good Jane Austen telling us that “D’Arcy proposed to Lizzy Bennet and Lizzy said no.”
The whole reason we read Pride & Prejudice is to be with Lizzy as she experiences that first (awful) proposal. To feel her emotions and reactions almost second by second as she goes through that scene.
Readers always experience the closest emotional contact with their character during scenes that are shown, rather than via facts that are simply reported.
As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly like the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra for two reasons, the first of which is that Henry James phrased the whole thing better:
“Dramatise! Dramatise! Dramatise!”
That’s so easy and so clear. If you have a patch of writing that seems a little low energy – a little blank, a little dull – then just let those commandments echo in your head.
Those dramatic scenes are all, always, shown not told. Those scenes are what keep your readers reading your novel. Your novel should be formed almost completely of such scenes.
By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Ah, OK, I’ve got this. I see why this is so important. I gotta remember never to tell stuff, and always to show stuff.”
And that’s what some people think. And what some writing tutors teach.
And they’re all wrong. Stick with me, and I’ll tell you why.
“Show, Don’t Tell”: Why this rule is sometimes just plain wrong
So far in this post, we’ve looked at – and preferred – examples of writing that were shown rather than told.
We’ve said that showing is more dramatic and more engaging. It’s the way we plunge our readers into the drama of our story. It’s our basic method for getting them to experience the emotions of our characters.
And that’s all true. But right at the start of this post, I also said:
Is an efficient way to communicate data.
And hold on – those things can be good as well as bad, right?
So, sure, if we have some crucial scene – D’Arcy proposing to Lizzy Bennet, or my gang of Bowen, Katie and Fiona finding some vellum in a church – then you have to show that scene, not merely report the action.
But let’s say, you have a line in your book that says:
“Years passed and during that time Yulia hardly ever thought of the incident again. It was gone. It belonged in some past life,to some past self. She was busy now with other things. Only then, one bright, clear day in March . . .”
That’s telling, right? It’s the narrator just reporting stuff, not showing it.
And according to the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra, telling is bad.
BUT IT ISN’T!
Telling is the wrong way to deliver dramatic scenes (which should, of course, compose the vast bulk of your novel), but it can be great way to deliver information that is essential to your story, but of no great dramatic consequence.
So take that “years passed” passage above. How would you even go about showing all that? Would you really have Yulia waking up day after day, month after month, and year after year, NOT thinking about whatever that past incident was?
Sure, that would be showing not telling . . . but you’d be crazy to do it that way.
The truth here is pretty simple:
If you have essential factual information to deliver, and that information has no dramatic interest in its own right, then just tell it. Don’t try to show it, because you’ll slow your book right down – and probably kill it.
Showing is for drama (and your book should be mostly drama.)
Telling is for the efficient delivery of all the non-dramatic information your book requires.
The way I usually think about it is that my dramatic scenes are the stones in my wall, but for the wall to hold together, to be intact, it needs a little bit of mortar too. The mortar is the glue that holds all the good stuff together.
Yes, there’s a lot more stone than mortar in the wall.
Showing and telling: you always need both.
How to use “Show Don’t Tell” in Your Writing
Seven steps to totally awesome greatness
We’ve talked a lot about general principles, but it would be kinda nice to implement them, right?
So here goes with the 7 Ninja Tips of Showing vs Telling Greatness. You are now officially just one short rocket-ride from success …
1. Use dialogue
Dialogue always delivers a scene that shimmers with life and emotional movement. (Especially when you write dialogue right, of course!) What’s especially great about dialogue is that it makes the reader decode the speaker’s true meaning in exactly the same way that we have to decode it in real life.
So if a character says, “Yes, I’d absolutely love that,” they probably mean that they’d love it … but if it’s a macho guy being invited to get work experience in a make-up boutique, you would probably guess that he’s being sarcastic.
That’s a pretty clumsy example, of course, but the gaps between what a character says and what they really mean can feel really alive to the reader. (And a lot of fun for the writer too.)
2. Puntuate your scene with actions
Some scenes will punctuate themselves with action very naturally. If you are writing a high intensity scene, such as a battle scene for example, your scene will be naturally studded with big, dramatic activity. But almost all books will have plenty of less action-intense scenes. So, for example, you might have a big corporate meeting in some glossy boardroom. The events being discussed might have huge consequences for your characters and your story … but there’s no onrush of dramatic activity. No cities being set on fire. No Vikings with swords. No car chases. No nothing.
But you still have to include actions.
If you don’t the scene will start to float away from the characters and seem unreal, without anchor. So what you need to do is insert actions anyway. You actually need to engineer something tp punctuate the scene.
So yes, getting up, turning pages, pouring coffee, looking out at the view – all those things count and help — somewhat.
But maybe the corporate mogul at the heart of the action could at some point get angry. Hurl a coffee cup at a wall. Start shredding a binder full of company documents. Those things wouldn’t count for much if you were writing an action-adventure book, but for the kind of scenes you’re talking about, they deliver exactly what you need.
Short message: all scenes need actions, and those actions need to be suited to your place, your characters, and the kind of story you’re writing. Vikings with swords for one kind of book, thrown coffee cups for another.
3. Exploit your physical setting
Actions and dialogue help, because they help keep your characters alive on the page – and alive in the mind of the reader.
For much the same reason, great descriptions of place help as well. They anchor everything that’s happening in the scene. That anchoring means that the stuff you’re describing feels like real things happening to real place in a real location.
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that you need to write whole pages of purple prose talking about the wind in the palm trees, or whatever else. What I am saying is that you need a paragraph or so to locate the action relatively early in the scene … and then you need to keep nudging the reader to remind her where you are.
So let’s say your scene is taking place in a rainy New York garden. You’d have two or three sentences setting the scene. (Let’s say: iron railings, rain, noise of police sirens, a sad-looking willow tree, smells and steam coming from the back of a Chinese laundry opposite.) Then you start to let your scene unfurl and, as the characters move and talk and act, you drop in little sentences like, “rain dripped from the willow.” or “She paused to let the howl of a nearby siren pass down the street.”
You’re not interrupting the action. You’re just helping the reader actually visualise it.
4. Make use of your character’s physicality
In the example just given, I suggested that you might write “rain dripped from the willow.” And, good, that’s perfectly fine.
But let’s bring your character right into that rainy garden, shall we? So you might have something like this:
“Rain dripped from the willow. Her hair was getting soaked but he couldn’t help noticing that she seemed barely aware of it. And this was Esmee. Esmee who was normally so conscious of the tiniest bit of discomfort or, as she put it, ‘outdoor horribleness.’
That’s effective writing, because you have the physical location and the character interacting – and interacting to a specific emotional / story purpose. In this case, that purpose is to emphasise that Esmee is so taken aback by the events of the scene (whatever those are), she’s stopped noticing stuff that would normally really bother her.
The short moral: use your characters’ body and physical sensations to make them physically present and alive in your scene.
5. Use specific words, not generic ones
Another easy win here.
If you are trying to locate a scene in a place that feels real, you want to get specific rather than generic.
So “rain dripped from the tree” feels blandly universal. “Rain dripped from the willow” feels already more specific and immediate.
Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to get really specific. Something like this maybe: “rain dripped from the willow’s long, drooping tendrils. She noticed that the tree was balding, losing leaves, as though unhappy to be here. As though longing for escape.”
I don’t want to suggest you always need to be that specific – sometimes it’s fine for a willow to just be a willow – but in this case, some specific comments about a tree rebound back to hint something about what the character’s might be feeling.
Short moral: always prefer the specific to the generic. And sometimes, if it makes sense, you can get very specific.
6. Always make space for the reaction shot
You know how in the movies, you’ll always get the reaction shot? LIke this, I mean:
Beat 1: “I don’t want to marry you,” she said. “I never did.”
Beat 2: Close up of the guy’s face
And it’s kind of obvious why you have those rhythms. If you don’t have the reaction shot, you’ve lost a lot of the drama from the action of beat 1. You need both.
And it’s the same with novels. Sometimes, you’ll need a whole paragraph describing a reaction. Sometimes you’ll leave it to dialogue. Sometimes you’ll make do with hints, but leave plenty of scope for creative ambiguity. And any of those routes (depending on the situation, depending on your story) are fine. What’s not fine is to leave the action without a reaction.
Short moral: always include the reaction shot! Easy.
7. Don’t be rushed: let readers feel the beats
FInal ninja tip of all-out showing & telling awesomeness:
Yes, you want to write a compelling and dramatic scene. Yes, you may have your heart set on a whole long action sequence with plenty of gunplay and chase scenes and whatever else.
But let the reader enjoy it! Let them savour the moment!
Don’t say, “the car was out of control. The car careened downhill and struck Damon on the hip, smashing him to the floor.”
That’s OK, but where’s the time to savour anything? The lovely thing about this moment is that Damon notices the car is out of control and he’s right in the firing line.
What does he think? What does he do? What does he feel?
I don’t know, because this author hasn’t told us. It’s slower, yes, but it’s actually more exciting to tease out that moment in more detail:
The car was clearly out of control. Damon could just about see a driver but there was something about the curve of his shoulders, the loll of his head, which suggested the driver had lost consciousness, or worse. The fall of the hill put Damon right in the firing line. He remembered thinking, “I’m going to be hit. I need to move aside.” He probably took the very first part of that action too. Some sideways move. Some break for shelter. But …”
And so on. You can see that by slowing the action down you’ve actually ramped the excitement up. Pretty good, huh? And fun to write, every single damn time.
That’s it from me. Have fun with the showing & telling. Do it right, and your scenes will come alive, and you’ll enjoy writing them too.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (You can read moreabout Harry here and here, and more about his books here)
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)