Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule (With Examples … And Exceptions)

26 Apr 2024 | Fiction

Title image: Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule (With Examples ... And Exceptions)

This post was first published in February 2012 and extensively updated in April 2024.

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is show, don’t tell.

It’s a neat little phrase. But you might wonder what exactly the “show don’t tell” rule means, and why it matters. After all, you’re telling a story … is that so bad? And what does it look like when you’re showing vs telling?

We’re going to dig deep into what the “show don’t tell” rule means, when to follow it (and when not to), and how authors use both showing and telling effectively in their work.

What Is the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule?

The “show, don’t tell” writing rule is a common piece of advice for writers to show something, often with vivid details and examples, rather than simply telling the reader about it through summary or bare facts.

Here’s a quick example.

Telling: Jane was tired today.

Showing: Jane yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Coffee,” she mumbled. “I need coffee.”

Where Did the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule Come From?

The “show don’t tell” rule is one that plenty of writers have followed for centuries. But as a codified rule or writing technique, it’s generally attributed to Anton Chekhov (a playwright) who apparently said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

What Does the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule Mean for Your Own Writing?

New writers (and experienced ones, too) sometimes feel confused or anxious about this piece of writing advice. Is it always the case that you need to “show” everything through dramatic scenes? Does it make you a better writer if you never tell the reader anything? Or are there times when a quick narrative summary makes sense, instead of painting a dramatic scene?

And, since telling tends to be more concise and big-picture than showing, why is telling a problem? After all, there are plenty of types of writing where it’s perfectly fine to tell the reader things, particularly if you look at non-fiction. (Think informative articles, for instance, or technical instructions, or business reports … all of those involve plenty of telling.)

We’re going to dig into these issues, starting with why telling doesn’t tend to work so well in creative writing.

Telling is Usually Too Abstract to Fully Engage the Reader

The main problem with telling readers something in fiction is that it can come across as rather flat. You’re giving readers information that may feel quite generic and hard to connect with.

Here are some examples of telling:

#1: Tina felt like her life was going nowhere.

#2: John was always impatient with his children.

#3: The house was run-down and dirty.

Do readers feel sorry for Tina? Do they care that John is impatient with his children? Do they get a clear picture of the house?

Probably not. So what can we do differently in the writing?

#1: Work was deathly dull, so Tina browsed Facebook; it didn’t make her feel any better. One friend from school had just been promoted to managing director; another had got engaged. All she had, five years out of college, was a cat, a tiny rented apartment, and twenty thousand dollars of debt.

#2: John grabbed the doll that was lying on the sofa and thrust it into his daughter’s hands. “Can’t you ever pick up your toys?”

#3: The flowers in the front garden were long dead, and paint was flaking from the window frames. As Sarah pushed open the front door, a musty smell hit her. There were patches of damp mould creeping up the walls. She almost slammed the door shut again in disgust.

None of these are necessarily great prose … but I hope they’re a bit more engaging than the “telling” versions.

You’ll notice that:

  • “Showing” can take much longer. It may take a whole page to show the reader something that you could tell them in a few sentences. (Think of summarising a movie or book to a friend: it doesn’t take long to cover the bare bones of what happened. But writing a story is about bringing those bones to life.)
  • “Showing” means giving details. You don’t need to describe everything, of course; the reader will infer other details from what’s been given. In the first example, we don’t need to have details of all Tina’s friends – two examples help give us the general impression: Tina sees her friends as successful, and compares herself unfavourably with them.
  • “Showing” brings in character, sometimes in quite subtle ways. In the second example, John isn’t just impatient, there’s also a hint of violence (look at the verbs “grabbed” and “thrust” – imagine substituting “picked up” and “put”). In the third example, we see Sarah’s response of “disgust” to the run-down house (perhaps a different character would, instead of being tempted to slam the door, call out because they’re worried about potential inhabitants).

However, it’s important to remember that telling isn’t necessarily bad writing. There are lots of occasions when it will make sense to simply tell the reader something … and times when it might not even be clear whether a particular sentence is “showing” or “telling”.

How to Know Whether You Should “Show” or “Tell”

When I come across something in my work that I’m tempted to simply tell, I ask myself how I can “make a scene of it” and whether that would be more effective.

Making a scene of it might mean:

#1: Using Dialogue

This can be a great way to show aspects of character – if someone’s impatient, rude, or simply lacks social graces, this can come out in dialogue.

If you’ve got a character who’s manipulative or a liar, you can show this in dialogue by writing from their point of view, showing their actual thoughts alongside what they’re saying.

#2: Using Description

Although this might involve some level of telling (“the house was a 1960s semi”), you’re giving concrete details that let the reader build up a picture of the scene.

Description can also help show character, both in the person who’s being described, or having their possessions described (someone whose house is unusually tidy or messy, for instance) and in the person doing the describing (through the details they pick up on and how they pass judgement on those).

#3: Using Narrative

This is a story; stuff needs to happen. The actions and reactions of your characters can reveal a lot about them and about the world they live in.

If you’re writing a dystopian sci-fi novel, you don’t need to tell us “The whole country was under a repressive regime” – you can show us a woman hurrying home before curfew, or a man glancing around nervously before lowering his voice to make a fairly innocuous anti-government remark.

Is Telling Always Bad?

In some situations, though, “making a scene of it” might not be the best option. It’s perfectly normal to tell the reader things, particularly if you need to save time.

For instance, it’s fine to tell us “Thomas was overweight and balding” rather than spending a couple of paragraphs describing Thomas huffing his way up the stairs or standing in front of the mirror touching his bald spot – especially if Thomas is a minor character.

The key is to avoid letting telling become a short-hand that stops you from developing major characters and situations.

Examples of Effective Showing (and Why They Work)

Let’s take a look at some examples of effective showing, across a range of different genres. I’ve deliberately picked examples with very different narrative styles.

With each, I’ll dig into how the “show don’t tell” is being used by the author in each of the following examples to immerse readers in the story.

Example #1: Room (Emma Donoghue)

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.

These are the opening lines of Room. We’re not told where the narrator and his mother are, and why, but details slowly come out.

Even these couple of lines will raise questions in the reader’s mind. Why is the child sleeping in the wardrobe and waking up in the bed? Why are Wardrobe and Bed (and, reading on, the rest of the items in the room) all capitalised? All these unanswered questions keep us turning the pages.

As the first chapter continues, it becomes clear that there’s something very wrong with the situation – even though the narrator treats everything as though it’s completely normal. As the truth is slowly revealed, the reader is hooked.

Example #2: Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin; but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air, he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck, and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy, and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he shewed signs of life, we wrapped him up in blankets, and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen-stove. By slow degrees he recovered, and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.

Captain Walton is writing to his sister about Doctor Frankenstein here (though we don’t yet know his name at this early point in the book). Mary Shelley shows the scene in detail, combining some telling (“I never saw a man in so wretched a condition”) with showing us actions and giving details.

As readers, we’re concerned and curious about this man who’s been brought onto the ship. What’s happened to him and why is he in such a terrible physical condition? Will he recover? We tend to have sympathy for fictional characters who are suffering … and the vivid details here help make this newly introduced character seem very real.

Example #3: Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)

‘Fred,’ a voice said behind him, ‘Fred.’

The gin slopped out of Hale’s glass on to the bar. A boy of about seventeen watched him from the door—a shabby smart suit, the cloth too thin for much wear, a face of starved intensity, a kind of hideous and unnatural pride.

‘Who are you Freding?’ Hale said. ‘I’m not Fred.’

‘It don’t make any difference,’ the boy said. He turned back towards the door, keeping an eye on Hale over his narrow shoulder.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Got to tell your friends,’ the boy said.

They were alone in the saloon bar except for an old commissionaire, who slept over a pint glass of old and mild. ‘Listen,’ Hale said, ‘have a drink. Come and sit down over here and have a drink.’

This is our first glimpse of Pinky – a sociopathic 17-year-old mobster generally referred to as “the boy” – in Brighton Rock. Graham Greene shows us what he’s like both through the description of how he looks and through the dialogue. Note also how we’re not told “Hale was startled” but instead shown “the gin slopped out of Hale’s glass”.

The charged dialogue makes us uneasy, too. As readers, we begin to draw our own conclusions. We suspect the “friends” the boy talks about are not friends at all, especially as the opening line of the novel has told us Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

Showing us characters interacting, with a sense of history between them and subtext to their dialogue, is a great way to pull the reader into the story.

Examples of Effective Telling (and Why They Work)

Now, we’ll turn to some examples of telling, used appropriately, and dig into why the authors chose to tell rather than show in these situations.

Example #1: Rivers of London (Ben Aaranovitch)

The responding officers reported back to control, who alerted the area Murder Investigation Team whose duty officer, the most junior detective constable on the team, arrived half an hour later: he took one look at Mr Headless and woke his governor.

This passage comes from the second page of the book … and telling is often used, early on in a story, to set up the situation.

We don’t need to know who the officers are: it’s not important to the story. The “telling” mode is an appropriate one here – it gets the information across fast and keeps us moving. There’s also a hint of the first-person narrator’s voice (“governor” is slang for “boss” in this case – you’ll often hear it in British cop dramas).

Example #2: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

I’d heard of Halliday, of course. Everyone had. He was the videogame designer responsible for creating the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis. The unprecedented success of the OASIS had made Halliday one of the wealthiest people in the world.

This is the second paragraph of Ready Player One and it’s essentially all telling. Unlike in the Rivers of London example, Halliday is really important to the story … but he’s not the protagonist. (That’s Wade, the first-person narrator.)

It makes sense for Ernest Cline to have Wade tell us about Halliday, rather than spending pages and pages showing this before getting into the inciting event of the novel: Halliday’s death and the release of a video message called Anorak’s Invitation, which kicks off the whole plot of the novel.

Example #3: The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

Approximately once a month there are not-quite-regularly scheduled Midnight Dinners that are most often referred to by the guests as Circus Dinners. They are a nocturnal amalgam of social event and business meeting.

Mme. Padva is always in attendance, and one or both Burgess sisters are a staple. Mr. Barris joins them as often as his schedule will allow, as he travels quite a bit and is not as flexible as he would prefer.

Mr. A. H— appears rarely. Tara remarks that they seem to have more productive post-dinner meetings when he is there, though he offers only occasional suggestions as to how the circus itself should be regulated.

These two paragraphs begin the chapter “The Contortionist’s Tattoo” on page 79 of The Night Circus. I didn’t want to only choose good examples of telling from the very start of novels! A quick summary like this prevents the author getting bogged down in showing how these dinners normally go, so that the story can quickly move on to one specific dinner, at which “only the ladies are present.”

Note the reported and summarized speech here (“Tara remarks that they seem to have more productive post-dinner meetings when he is there”) … another useful way of telling rather than showing.

In many cases, telling is a perfectly option from within your writer’s toolkit. As with the first and second examples, you might be summarizing events that set up the actual story, or as with the third example, you might need a short summary where you tell us thingsto quickly move us into a chapter and its action.

You might also deliberately adopt a writing style that includes a lot of telling, and that’s fine. You could be using an omniscient narrator, like Erin Morgenstern does in the excerpt above. Alternatively, you might be using telling for comedic effect. You don’t always need to avoid telling: just be aware of the choices you’re making, and why.

Striking the Right Balance of Show vs Tell in Your Own Work

It can be tricky to know whether you’re doing too much telling and not enough showing … so how can you check whether you’ve balanced these well?

Some things to consider might be:

#1: Where Are You in the Story?

Where does this section come in the context of your story as a whole?

At least some degree of telling is normal during prologues, opening chapters, or the beginning of a new section or part within your book: it’s an efficient way to give us the details we need to know before diving into the action.

#2: Who’s Involved?

Does this passage involve your main character (or their best friend, or another significant character) … or is it about a minor, unnamed character who won’t reoccur?

There’s probably no need to develop characters who are only playing a functional role in the narrative. Feel free to “tell” if you need to quickly get across information about them.

#3: Is it About How a Character Feels?

Are you describing rather than showing a character’s emotions? You might want to consider using dialogue, actions, or specific details of body language to convey the emotion instead.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot longer to do this, but it can make things a lot more vivid for the reader.

#4: Does Your Character Have an “Informed Attribute”?

Are you telling the reader something about a character that doesn’t seem to be born out by what actually happens or what’s said in dialogue?

This is what TV Tropes calls an “informed attribute“. (For instance, perhaps you tell us that a particular character is “wise beyond their years” but we don’t see them doing or saying anything particularly wise.)

You may need to show us this attribute for us to be convinced.

#5: What’s Your Word Count?

Does your story need to be longer (or shorter) to reach a target word count? This might seem like a fairly prosaic consideration, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you’re writing, say, short stories for competitons.

Editing your first draft to add more showing can lengthen your story, through describing things rather than giving a quick one-sentence summary, through dialogue rather than reported speech, and so on.

Alternatively, switching to telling can help you cut long passages where not all that much is happening and where readers might lose interest.

It can be tricky to figure out whether you have quite the right balance of showing and telling in your writing, and it’s important to remember that you don’t need to follow the “show don’t tell” rule all the time … sometimes, it’s easier for your readers if you do some telling to help set up a scene or convey essential information.

About

I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.

26 Comments

  1. Bridges Stevenson

    Ali,
    You could not have posted this as a better time. I took a break from what I’m currently writing, because I was having trouble describing something and started surfing the web when I noticed you had a new post. I didn’t even read half of this post and it had already helped me so much I went straight back to my Word document. I had to come back here and read the rest. As always thanks a million.
    Bridges
    Bridges Stevenson’s last blog post ..Tulaq Ch. 2*

    Reply
    • Ali

      Yay! Thanks, Bridges — so glad this came at the right time for you and that it helped you get unstuck. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Robin Coyle

    Excellent post! The best explanation of “Show Don’t Tell” I’ve seen. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Ali

      Thanks Robin! I was trying to make the post clear and helpful, so I’m really glad it worked. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Zac | Turning Point Motivation

    Cool post Ali!

    I’ve recently noticed this difference when I been reading lately.
    For example, when I read true-crime books their all about tell, and when I read crime fiction like an Elmore Leonard novel it’s all about show.

    I have to always keep it on top of mind when I’m writing to show more and tell less.

    Thanks!
    Zac | Turning Point Motivation’s last blog post ..Why You’re Blog Is Like An Abandoned Amusement Park, And What You Can Do About It

    Reply
    • Ali

      Cheers, Zac! And that’s a great point about fact verses fiction (I steer clear of true crime … I’m too squeamish!)

      Reply
  4. Vishnu

    I enjoyed this post too Ali. telling is so much easier than showing. but i guess journalists and reporters tell? but writers and authors should focus on showing? thanks for the examples.

    Reply
    • Ali

      It depends what you’re writing — the “show don’t tell” rule is really for fiction writers, though I think more showing and less telling can benefit writers in many forms.

      Obviously, a fair bit of “telling” needs to go into journalism or information-based blog posts — but even then, some quotes or great examples can do a good job of “showing”.

      Reply
  5. Jo

    Perfect timing… this is the very thing I’ve been working on lately, and it’s great to have a resource and some good examples. Thanks!
    Jo’s last blog post ..Celtic Thunder Voyage DVD and CD

    Reply
    • Ali

      Yay, glad to help, Jo! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Ross the Rottweiler

    I think that “show don’t tell” works so well because it helps the reader see an inner movie of what’s happening before their inner eyes.

    That makes such a great reading experience!

    Reply
    • Ali

      Absolutely! I think that experience of “seeing” the story unfold before us is why reading’s so great. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Heather Sivs

    Loved these reminders! Thank you.

    Reply
    • Ali

      Thanks Heather! 🙂

      Reply
  8. LycoRogue

    One of my husband’s friends posted your “8 secrets” article and I’m so glad he did. Your blog is an awesome tool for writers. I’m currently beta-reading for about four people – as well as writing myself – and no matter what advice I need to give my writers, I can always find a post here that can better illustrate and instruct them on how to improve.

    As for this post itself. Well, I have the opposite problem of showing too much and rarely telling. LOL. I guess I need to take that “it’s ok to tell sometimes” part to heart. Thanks so much for these posts!

    Reply
    • Ali

      Thanks! And I’m so glad that my posts are helping you and your writers too … I write a lot of mine based on problems that I see friends/clients having with their writing.

      It wasn’t until I got to MA level that a tutor finally said that it was OK to tell some of the time! And plenty of great fiction has passages of telling. I think “show don’t tell” is great advice for newer writers, but once we get a bit more experienced, it’s fine to break the “rules” 😉

      Reply
  9. Cheryl Reifsnyder

    I really appreciate that you talk about times when telling is the appropriate choice. Showing is great when you want the reader to sympathize or when you want to create a strong visual, but telling is a great way to move a story from point A to point B by summarizing things that aren’t as important.
    Cheryl Reifsnyder’s last blog post ..10 Signs You’re Adjusting to Ebooks

    Reply
    • Ali

      Exactly! If I was writing a very short story (say, 1000 words) then I’d inevitably have to *tell* some things (“John had always been a loner, and he liked it that way” or whatever) rather than showing you the history of all the characters. The key is, like you say, to show the important things and summarise (tell) the reader anything where the details really don’t matter.

      Reply
  10. kate richards

    Excellent information! I bookmarked it. As an editor, I have to explain this often. It’s not something we learned in high school…or college. It’s the essence of how to be an author and tell a story well. The difference between one of those books that leaves you mildly annoyed and one that stays with you. 🙂
    kate richards’s last blog post ..Somebody Else’s Baby

    Reply
    • Ali

      Great point about good showing being a characteristic of books that stay with us … I absolutely agree. Long passages of telling almost always put me off. (I’ve come across a few thrillers that include large chunks of historical/geographical research — way more than I have the patience for!)

      Reply
  11. kate richards

    I think sometimes as writers we want to give all the interesting information or present a clear picture of the scenery…and don’t realize it’s not necessary. The story is the story and the background should be just enough to set the scene and take the reader there.
    kate richards’s last blog post ..Somebody Else’s Baby

    Reply
  12. Rich Currier

    Someone was helping me understand how to convey my thoughts better, for the story I’m writing. They said “More showing and less telling”. I didn’t understand what she meant. Until I read your post about Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule. Much clearer now. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Klaus Schilling

    I hate and rigorously avoid reading any story that emphasises showing over telling, as it reads always like absolutely incomprehensible drivel — no exception. Consequently, there is no way whatsoever you can dissuade me from telling mercilessly and shamelessly instead of showing when writing my own stories.

    Reply
    • Ali

      I’m certainly no advocate of drivel! Of course most stories will involve some degree of “telling” as well as “showing” … and you are at liberty to strike whatever balance suits you best in your own writing.

      Reply
  14. Emma

    It clicked for me when I was traveling for college tours and writing in between. I showed my dad a passage from my story and asked him if it felt like one of my characters was shutting down and closing off a bit. He said he wasn’t getting that impression at all. I asked him if I should have the narrator say something like “he seemed to be closing off.” My dad replied that I should write the character actually closing off. Seems simple, but that was the turning point for me when I figured out what the heck it meant to “show.” But the balance is still something I struggle with, so I was glad to see this post in my inbox! (And a bit surprised to see so many comments on it it’s usually a bit empty down here.)
    Emma’s last blog post ..Active Galaxies Demystified

    Reply
    • Ali

      Oops, I read this and meant to reply before! That’s a great bit of advice from your dad … I think we all probably need to get a certain way with writing before some types of advice just “click”.

      This is an older post that I revised/republished, so it still has all the comments from when it was first published … I do miss how chatty the comments section used to be! I think more of that has moved onto social media over the past few years.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts - [...] you want some help understanding the “show don’t tell” rule, Ali Luke has some tips for you. [...]
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