Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Writer’s Corner! This week, we will be talking about the “show, don’t tell” method!
"Show, don’t tell” is a writing technique that “allow[s] the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.”  To illustrate, take the following quote from James Dashner’s opening scene of The Maze Runner, as previously used in another post:
“Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. He fell down at the sudden movement and shuffled backward on his hands and feet, drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cool air. His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room. Sinking to the floor, he pulled his legs up tight against his body, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness.”
A number of conclusions can be drawn immediately from this paragraph, one of which is the narrator’s state of mind. Trapped in an unknown environment with no knowledge of how he got there, the narrator expresses his emotions through body language, namely by sweating and hugging himself. When you are anxious or afraid, it is not uncommon to break out into a sweat; similarly, when you are unsafe or in distress, hugging yourself can provide a sense of comfort.
Dashner did not tell his reader that his narrator was afraid— he showed it. In contrast, you might find that the show Hunter x Hunter has a terrible habit of telling everything, which might give you an idea of what not to do. Disclaimer: I’m not saying the show is bad. The narrator’s role pulls through when it comes to exposition, especially when it comes to lore, but the role is used extensively to describe even the characters’ emotions in places where the animation can just show it. I already know that Kurapika is drowning in an indescribable emptiness. It’s on his face. You don’t need to tell me.
The “show, don’t tell” technique can also be applied to description, rather than just emotions. Let’s continue with Dashner’s example:
“With another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft.
Harsh sounds of chains and pulleys, like the workings of an ancient steel factory, echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls with a hollow, tinny whine. The lightless elevator swayed back and forth as it ascended, turning the boy’s stomach sour with nausea; a smell of burnt oil invaded his senses, making him feel worse.”
The reader is able to tell what kind of setting the character has been placed on, as well as the state of that setting. In this case, we know that the narrator is in an elevator, and we are able to discern that for ourselves before the word “elevator” is even mentioned. We can also tell that the elevator is not in the best of conditions, as evidenced by the sounds and smells described by the narrator.
Once again, Dashner did not tell his reader that his narrator was in a poorly-maintenanced elevator— he showed it. This is what “show, don’t tell” means. Admittedly, in comparison to visual media such as movies and animations, it’s harder to show these things through writing, as writers can’t simply just draw faces and expressions. Regardless, the showing part is important all the same, and is what makes the story immersive.
My best advice is to imagine your scene as you write it. If your character is happy, how would a film portray that happiness? What look would appear on that character’s face? How would their voice sound? How would they move around? Similarly, if your setting is rundown, what would the camera focus on to show that to the audience? Would it be the wilting flowers? The broken windows? The peeling paint?
Now, let’s dive into some more examples.
Because I love Six of Crows and will never stop advertising it for people to read, this first example will be from— you guessed it!— Six of Crows. This following paragraph is from the second book, Crooked Kingdom, and features a scene where Wylan van Eck, privileged runaway and the designated demolitions expert of the main crew, has just made a heartbreaking discovery.
“Wylan’s legs gave out and he sat down hard, right there in the middle of the road, and he couldn’t bring himself to care because the tears were coming and there was no way he could stop them. They gusted through his chest in ragged, ugly sobs. He hated that Jesper was seeing him cry, but there was nothing he could do, not about his tears, not about any of it. He buried his face in his arms, covering his head as if, were he to only will it strongly enough, he could vanish.”
It’s no question that Wylan is sad. He’s crying in the middle of the road. But there are more details in this paragraph that build up that sadness, such as the action of collapsing and the thoughts of his helplessness. It is through these little details that Bardugo shows us the turmoil of emotions jumbling around in Wylan’s head. As the great Wikipedia once said: actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings. These are the key to crafting a great “show, don’t tell” scene.
Also, Bardugo didn’t just write the above paragraph and decided to call it a day. Following up to this paragraph, she makes sure that the reader is aware of how deeply Wylan’s emotions have affected him. But she doesn’t say, “Wylan was sad. In fact, he was really sad.” Instead, she says:
“Wylan felt his knees buckle and had to grab the wall for balance.”
“He must have made some kind of noise, because the nurse turned to him. ‘Oh dear,’ she said to Jesper, ‘your friend’s gone quite pale again. Perhaps a stimulant?’”
“Wylan wanted to scream.”
“Wylan didn’t register the walk down the drive bordered by yew hedges or retrieving their coats and caps from behind the tree stump near the main road. They were halfway back to the dock before he could bring himself to speak.”
“Wylan felt the painful press of tears in his throat and fought to swallow them.”
All of this happens on three pages. After reading these three pages, the reader is able to grasp the depth of Wylan’s emotions because Bardugo has effectively shown it.
My second best piece of advice is to place yourself in the characters’ shoes. Don’t just imagine the scene– imagine the characters. When I write emotionally charged scenes, I try to capture the vibes by twisting my face this way and that, sometimes reciting the dialogue, and, if the scene is intense enough, I almost end up crying! Body language, expressions, tone of voice– these little details contribute to the makeup of personality and emotion. You can tell a lot about someone through these little details, even by the way they stand!
Of course, that’s not to say that these little details are not exclusively limited to emotions. They can be used to show disposition as well. If a character is shy, what are the traits they would exhibit that hint towards their personality? In a conversation, you can give them little to say. In an interaction, you can mention their nervous habits, such as crossing their arms or rubbing the back of their neck. My writing might not reflect this, but I’m an incredibly shy person, and I tend to avoid eye contact and slouch to make myself seem small. I don’t wish to be perceived! Don’t look at me! If a character is like that, then show it!
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
‒ Anton Chekhov
When it comes to painting, a lot of care is poured into all the little details that come together to create the bigger picture. A tree, for example, is rich with branches and leaves and even animals during the hotter months. But in the cold, the colors fade and the bark decays. The birds leave their nests in search of warmer sanctuaries, and the squirrels burrow deep within the wood to hibernate. Instead of saying, “there was a tree,” bring all these little details to light and your reader will be able to step into your world and experience it for themselves.
So, don’t tell me the house is fancy; show me:
“Hoede had one of the grandest mansions on the Geldstraat— floors set with gleaming squares of black and white stone, shining dark wood walls lit by blown-glass chandeliers that floated like jellyfish near the coffered ceilings.”
Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo)
Don’t tell me the forest is on fire; show me:
“The forest floor was covered in flames, angry and blue, spreading fast across the ground and curling into the trees, their branches undone as they creaked and sank downwards. The sky was close, too close, but Jian realized a second later that it was not the sky but that same blue blaze, a blanket of flames that leapt from tree to tree, swallowing the greenery whole.”
- excerpt from a book I’ll most likely never finish
It’s hard to read a story when all you can imagine is empty space. Fill in that empty space and bring your story to life!
If you’re having trouble, don’t worry. It happens! Look below for a handy-dandy cheat sheet:
You can also have a go at some of the following prompts:
I’ve never seen Inside Out, but I’ll borrow the basic emotions from that movie for this prompt. Say you have a character, and they are: happy, sad, angry, afraid, or disgusted. Don’t tell me; show me!
If you’d like to take it a step further, what are the circumstances that have led to your character experiencing this specific emotion? Did they just pass their driving test? Were they just betrayed by a loved one? Did they find a butterfly in their underwear? Were they just traumatized for life by an overhead pigeon with terrible bowels?
Personality and Interactions
Say you have two characters (or more than two). First, determine what kind of personality each character has. Is one of them hard-headed and blunt? Is the other meek and forgiving? Or are they both stubborn and butting heads over a disagreement? Are they both timid and walking on eggshells around each other?
Different people have different ways of showing both personality and emotion. You can practice detailing their little habits in an interaction. Show me how they speak, how they deal with other people. Show me how they get along, or how they don’t.
If you’d like to take it a step further, combine this prompt with the previous one and write about how each character processes and deals with their emotions. An outspoken person might express their anger openly, while a more reserved person might keep it inside. But don’t tell me; show me!
Setting and Atmosphere
Describe an area! You can start easy and describe the room you are currently in or are familiar with. This might be your bedroom or your kitchen, or even a classroom or a library. What kind of room is it? What condition is it in? What is the atmosphere? Is it bright and comfy? Or is it dark and gloomy?
You can also step outside, and describe something like a garden or an outdoor market. Are there people? What’s the weather like? Time of day? Any interesting sights or sounds or smells? As always, don’t tell me; show me!
As they say, practice makes perfect! Good luck, and see you next time on the Writer’s Corner!
About the Author
Charlize Colle Fernandez is an intern with the Love Yourself Foundation as a content editor. A student at UNLV, she is currently studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She hopes to become a book editor after graduation. Charlize has always enjoyed the arts, and she continues to find solace in stories, music, and photography.