Show, Don’t Tell: 8 Tips and Examples in Writing

Have you ever read a scene that felt flat, failing to truly pull you into the story? Often, the culprit is the reliance on “telling” rather than ‘showing.’ The age-old writing advice of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ might seem simple, but mastering it can transform your writing from informative to immersive.

This blog post explains the true power of ‘show, don’t tell.’ We’ll explore what it means, why it matters, and equip you with eight practical tips to bring your characters and scenes to life. As well as draw inspiration from classic children’s literature to show you real-life examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ in action.

What is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’?

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a fundamental principle in writing that encourages authors to create vivid and immersive experiences for their readers by demonstrating actions, emotions, and descriptions through concrete details rather than simply stating them outright. Instead of explicitly telling the reader what is happening or how a character feels, writers may use the ‘show don’t tell’ technique to allow the audience to imagine and experience these elements for themselves.

Take a look at this example that distinguishes showing from telling:

  • Telling: “She felt nervous,”
  • Showing: “Her fingers drummed a frantic rhythm on the table, her heart hammering against her ribs as she stole another glance at the clock.”

Instead of simply stating that the character feels nervous, the showing example immerses the reader in the character’s experience by describing physical sensations and actions that represent the emotion. This approach allows the reader to vividly imagine the scene and empathise with the character’s feelings, making the writing more engaging and evocative.

Essentially, ‘show, don’t tell’ encourages writers to paint a picture with words, inviting readers to see, hear, feel, and experience the narrative firsthand. This technique requires careful attention to detail, descriptive language, and the ability to develop sensory and emotional responses in the reader.

The Rule of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Explained

The ‘show, don’t tell’ rule is a cornerstone of effective writing, guiding authors to engage their readers through immersive storytelling rather than simply presenting information. At its core, this rule encourages writers to employ descriptive language, sensory details, and vivid imagery to evoke emotions, convey meaning, and bring their narratives to life.

When writers adhere to the principle of ‘show, don’t tell,’ they allow readers to experience the story firsthand, drawing them into the world of the narrative and fostering a deeper connection with the characters and events. By showing actions, emotions, and details through scenes and interactions, rather than outright telling the reader what is happening or how characters feel, writers create a more dynamic and compelling reading experience.

Mastering the art of ‘showing’ requires careful attention to detail and a keen understanding of how to use language to create imagery and evoke sensory and emotional responses in the reader. Throughout this blog post, we will delve into 8 practical tips and examples to help you effectively apply the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ in your writing, empowering you to craft stories that resonate with your audience and leave a lasting impression.

Words To Avoid When ‘Showing, Not Telling’

While ‘show, don’t tell’ is a powerful concept, there are certain words that can slip into your writing and unintentionally revert you to ‘telling.’ Here are some common culprits to be mindful of:

  • Emotional adverbs: Words like “happily,” “sadly,” “angrily,” and “excitedly” tell us how a character feels, rather than showing it.
  • Telling verbs: Verbs like “felt,” “thought,” “seemed,” and “appeared” can often be replaced with stronger verbs that showcase the action or situation, allowing the reader to infer the emotion. For example, rather than saying “She felt sad,” show her actions and expressions that reveal her sadness, such as slumped shoulders or a trembling lip.
  • Stating the obvious: Avoid phrases that simply state what a character is doing without adding any descriptive details. For instance, instead of “He opened the door,” consider, “The rusty hinges groaned as he pushed the heavy door open with a creak.”

Remember, the goal is to immerse your reader in the scene. By being mindful of these words and focusing on vivid descriptions and actions, you can truly ‘show, don’t tell’ a compelling story.

8 Tips on How to Use ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

Now that we’ve explored the concept of ‘show, don’t tell,’ let’s delve into practical tips to help you implement this technique effectively in your writing.

Tip 1: Engage the Senses

Engaging the senses is a powerful way to immerse readers in your narrative and bring scenes to life. Instead of simply telling readers what is happening, strive to show them by describing sensory details that appeal to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. By incorporating sensory imagery into your writing, you can evoke a more vivid and immersive experience for your readers, allowing them to feel as though they are experiencing the story firsthand.

For example, consider a scene where a character enters a bustling marketplace:

  • Telling: “The marketplace was crowded and noisy.”
  • Showing: “The marketplace buzzed with activity as vendors shouted their wares, the air thick with the scent of spices and the sound of laughter and chatter filling the air. Colours danced before her eyes as she navigated through the crowds.”

In this example, the showing approach engages multiple senses to paint a vivid picture of the marketplace, allowing readers to experience the scene in a more immersive and memorable way. By appealing to the senses, you can create a deeper connection between your readers and your narrative, enhancing the impact and resonance of your writing.

Tip 2: Use Dialogue and Action to Reveal Emotions

Dialogue and action are powerful tools for showing emotions in your writing. Instead of explicitly telling readers how a character feels, allow their words and actions to convey their emotions naturally. This approach not only creates more dynamic and realistic scenes but also deepens the reader’s understanding of the characters and their relationships.

For example, consider a scene where two characters are arguing:

  • Telling: “She was angry.”
  • Showing: “Her hands clenched into fists, and her jaw tightened as she glared at him. ‘How could you do this?’ she spat, her voice laced with venom.”

In this example, the showing approach uses the character’s physical actions and dialogue to convey her anger, allowing readers to infer her emotions without the need for explicit narration. By using dialogue and action to reveal emotions, you can create more engaging and authentic interactions between your characters, drawing readers further into the story and immersing them in the drama.

Tip 3: Show Character Development Through Actions and Decisions

Character development is essential for creating compelling and memorable stories. Instead of telling readers how characters change or grow throughout the narrative, show their development through their actions, decisions, and interactions with others. By allowing characters to evolve organically through their choices and experiences, you can create more subtle and believable character arcs that resonate with readers.

For example, consider a character who starts as selfish and self-centred:

  • Telling: “He became a better person.”
  • Showing: “He hesitated for a moment, torn between his own desires and the needs of others. In the end, he chose to sacrifice his own happiness for the greater good, a selfless act that surprised even himself.”

In this example, the showing approach demonstrates the character’s growth by depicting a specific moment where he makes a selfless decision, contrasting with his earlier selfish behaviour. By showing character development through actions and decisions, you can create more meaningful and impactful narratives that resonate with readers on a deeper level.

Tip 4: Create Vivid Settings Through Descriptive Detail

Setting plays a crucial role in establishing the atmosphere and mood of your narrative. Instead of simply telling readers where the story takes place, show them by using descriptive detail to create vivid and immersive settings. By painting a rich and detailed picture of the environment, you can transport readers to different worlds and enhance their reading experience.

For example, consider a scene set in a forest at night:

  • Telling: “It was a dark forest.”
  • Showing: “The moon cast dappled shadows through the dense canopy overhead, illuminating the winding path with an eerie glow. The air was thick with the scent of damp earth and pine needles, and the rustling of leaves echoed in the stillness of the night.”

In this example, the showing approach uses descriptive language to evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest, creating a vivid and atmospheric setting that draws readers into the scene. By creating vivid settings through descriptive detail, you can make your narrative more immersive and engaging, allowing readers to feel as though they are experiencing the story alongside the characters.

Tip 5: Use Symbolism and Metaphor to Convey Meaning

Symbolism and metaphor are powerful literary devices that can add depth and richness to your writing. Instead of explicitly stating themes or ideas, show them through symbolic imagery and metaphorical language. This approach allows readers to interpret the meaning for themselves, fostering deeper engagement and resonance with the text.

For example, consider a character struggling with inner turmoil:

  • Telling: “She was torn between two conflicting desires.”
  • Showing: “As she stood at the crossroads of her life, she felt the weight of indecision pressing down on her like a boulder, each path stretching out before her like diverging rivers, both equally enticing and terrifying.”

In this example, the showing approach uses metaphorical language to convey the character’s inner conflict, comparing it to the physical sensation of being torn between two opposing forces. By using symbolism and metaphor to convey meaning, you can enrich your writing with layers of depth and complexity, inviting readers to explore themes and ideas on a deeper level.

Tip 6: Develop Characters Through Behavior and Relationships

Characters are the heart of any story, and their development is essential for creating engaging narratives. Instead of relying solely on exposition to introduce characters, show their personality traits, motivations, and relationships through their behaviour and interactions with others. This approach allows readers to form their own impressions of the characters and invest in their journey throughout the narrative.

For example, consider a character who is portrayed as brave:

  • Telling: “He was a brave man.”
  • Showing: “Without hesitation, he stepped forward to confront the danger, his chin held high and his eyes ablaze with determination. Those around him looked to him for guidance, drawing strength from his unwavering courage.”

In this example, the showing approach reveals the character’s bravery through his actions and the reactions of those around him, allowing readers to infer his courageous nature without the need for explicit narration. By developing characters through behaviour and relationships, you can create more nuanced and relatable characters that resonate with readers on a deeper level.

Tip 7: Use Subtext to Add Depth to Dialogue

Subtext refers to the underlying meanings and implications conveyed through dialogue, often through what is left unsaid or implied. Instead of explicitly stating characters’ thoughts and feelings, use subtext to add depth and complexity to their interactions. This allows readers to engage more actively with the text as they uncover the hidden layers of meaning beneath the surface of conversation.

For example, consider a scene where two characters are discussing a difficult decision:

  • Telling: “She was unsure whether to accept the job offer.”
  • Showing: “She hesitated, her gaze flickering away for a moment before she forced a smile. ‘It’s an interesting opportunity,’ she said, her voice lacking its usual enthusiasm.”

In this example, the showing approach uses subtext to convey the character’s uncertainty about the job offer through her hesitant demeanour and lack of enthusiasm in her response. By incorporating subtext into dialogue, you can add depth and nuance to your characters’ interactions, enriching your narrative and inviting readers to explore the hidden meanings beneath the surface.

Tip 8: Allow Room for Reader Interpretation

One of the strengths of ‘show, don’t tell’ is its ability to engage readers by allowing them to interpret and infer meaning from the text. Instead of spelling everything out for the reader, leave room for interpretation by showing rather than telling, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions and form their own insights about the characters and themes.

For example, consider a scene where a character faces a moral dilemma:

  • Telling: “He wrestled with his conscience, unsure of what to do.”
  • Showing: “He paced back and forth, his brow furrowed in deep thought as he weighed the options before him. His fingers twitched with nervous energy, betraying the turmoil within.”

In this example, the showing approach allows readers to interpret the character’s inner conflict and moral dilemma based on his actions and demeanor, rather than having it explicitly stated. By allowing room for reader interpretation, you can create a more interactive and engaging reading experience, inviting readers to actively participate in the story and draw their own conclusions about its meaning and significance.

When Not to Use ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

While ‘show, don’t tell’ is a valuable principle in writing, there are instances where it may not be the most effective approach. Recognising when to deviate from this rule can help maintain narrative pacing, clarity, and balance in your writing. Here are some scenarios where it may be appropriate not to strictly adhere to ‘show, don’t tell’:

  1. Exposition and Background Information: Sometimes, it’s necessary to provide essential background information or exposition to ensure readers understand key elements of the story. While showing can be more engaging, there are instances where telling may be more efficient and practical for delivering necessary details without slowing down the narrative.
  2. Transitions and Time Passage: When transitioning between scenes or indicating the passage of time, telling can be a useful tool for succinctly conveying information and maintaining the pacing of the story. While showing can be immersive, there are situations where telling may be more appropriate for bridging gaps in the narrative.
  3. Summarising Events: In some cases, summarising events through telling can be an efficient way to cover periods of time or events that are not crucial to the main plot. While showing can provide depth and detail, there are instances where telling can help avoid unnecessary digressions and keep the story focused.
  4. Internal Monologue and Reflection: While showing internal thoughts and emotions through actions and dialogue is generally preferred, there are times when direct internal monologue or reflection may be necessary to provide insight into a character’s mindset or motivations. Balancing showing and telling in these instances can help convey the character’s inner world effectively.
  5. Establishing Tone and Style: Depending on the narrative style and tone of the writing, there may be instances where telling is preferred to achieve a specific effect or atmosphere. While showing can create vivid imagery, telling can be used strategically to set the tone or mood of the story.

In conclusion, while ‘show, don’t tell’ is a valuable guideline for creating immersive and engaging writing, it’s important to recognise when it may not be the best approach for every situation. By understanding when to use showing and when to employ telling, writers can effectively balance the two techniques to craft compelling and well-rounded narratives.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Examples

Here are some famous examples of ‘show don’t tell’ from classic children’s literature for you to review and study:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

In “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, a prime example of the ‘show, don’t tell’ writing technique is the opening scene where Fern questions her father’s need for an axe. Instead of simply informing the reader that a piglet’s life is in danger, White crafts a dialogue that evokes curiosity and concern.

WHERE’S Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.  “Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.” 
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. 
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.” 
Snippet taken from “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White

Fern’s innocent inquiry, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” immediately sets a tone of urgency and foreshadows the pivotal role Fern will play in the story. This approach allows readers to engage with the narrative, deducing the gravity of the situation through the characters’ interactions rather than through direct exposition. It’s a subtle yet powerful way to draw readers into the world of the story and connect with the characters’ emotions and experiences. 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis masterfully employs the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique to immerse readers in the story. For instance, instead of simply stating that Edmund is feeling regretful, Lewis shows us Edmund’s change of heart through his actions and the environment.

He now remembered that he had been looking for Lucy; and also how unpleasant he hadbeen to her about her “imaginary country” which now turned out not to have been imaginary at all. He thought that she must be somewhere quite close and so he shouted, “Lucy! Lucy! I’m here too-Edmund.”
There was no answer.
“She’s angry about all the things I’ve been saying lately,” thought Edmund. And thoughhe did not like to admit that he had been wrong, he also did not much like being alone inthis strange, cold, quiet place; so he shouted again.
“I say, Lu! I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I see now you were right all along. Do comeout. Make it Pax.”
Still there was no answer.
“Just like a girl,” said Edmund to himself, “sulking somewhere, and won’t accept anapology.” He looked round him again and decided he did not much like this place, andhad almost made up his mind to go home, when he heard, very far off in the wood, asound of bells. He listened and the sound came nearer and nearer and at last there sweptinto sight a sledge drawn by two reindeer. 
Snippet taken from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

This internal reflection reveals Edmund’s realization of his mistake without explicitly telling the reader he is regretful. 

Similarly, when Lucy first enters Narnia, the narrative doesn’t just inform us that she’s in a magical land; it allows us to experience the wonder alongside her:

Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. 
Snippet taken from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

Through sensory details, we discover the enchanting world of Narnia as Lucy does, feeling the crunch of snow and the chill of the air, which is far more engaging than a mere description. These examples illustrate how Lewis’s writing style effectively brings the story to life, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters and setting.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll masterfully uses the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique to bring his characters to life. For example, instead of simply telling the reader that the Queen of Hearts is an angry person, Carroll shows her volatile nature through her actions and dialogue. In the scene where she discovers the tarts have been stolen, her immediate command to “Off with their heads!” vividly illustrates her fiery temper and impulsive nature. 

“Leave off that!” screamed the Queen. “You make me giddy.” And then, turning to the rose-tree, she went on, “What have you been doing here?”
“May it please your Majesty,” said Two, in a very humble tone, going down on one knee as he spoke, “we were trying—”
“I see!” said the Queen, who had meanwhile been examining the roses. “Off with their heads!” and the procession moved on, three of the soldiers remaining behind to execute the unfortunate gardeners, who ran to Alice for protection.
Snippet taken from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

This method of storytelling allows readers to experience the Queen’s personality directly through her behaviour, rather than through descriptive narration. It’s a powerful way to create memorable and dynamic characters.

Another notable example is the scene where Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat. Instead of simply telling the reader that the cat is odd or magical, Lewis Carroll shows it through the cat’s actions and dialogue.

“Did you say pig, or fig?” said the Cat.
“I said pig,” replied Alice; “and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”
“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”
Snippet taken from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

The Cheshire Cat gradually disappears until nothing is left but its grin, engaging in conversation with Alice about the inhabitants of Wonderland. Carroll doesn’t need to explain that the cat is unusual; the cat’s ability to vanish and appear at will, coupled with its cryptic speech, effectively conveys this to the reader. This scene not only advances the plot but also deepens the surreal atmosphere of Wonderland, allowing readers to experience the peculiarity of the world through Alice’s eyes.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

In J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” the narrative technique of ‘show, don’t tell’ is used to effectively convey characters’ emotions and the atmosphere of scenes without explicitly stating them. For example, instead of simply telling the reader that Peter is a carefree and adventurous boy, Barrie shows it through Peter’s actions and dialogue. 

In the scene where Peter teaches the Darling children to fly, his exhilarating cries and the children’s reactions illustrate his wild and free nature. The children’s mixture of fear and excitement, their tentative leaps, and the magical moment when they find themselves floating all serve to show the wonder and danger of the adventure that lies ahead. 

They were all on their beds, and gallant Michael let go first. He did not quite mean to let go, but he did it, and immediately he was borne across the room. “I flewed!” he screamed while still in mid-air.
John let go and met Wendy near the bathroom.
“Oh, lovely!”
“Oh, ripping!”
“Look at me!”
“Look at me!”
“Look at me!”
They were not nearly so elegant as Peter, they could not help kicking a little, but their heads were bobbing against the ceiling, and there is almost nothing so delicious as that. Peter gave Wendy a hand at first, but had to desist, Tink was so indignant.
Up and down they went, and round and round. Heavenly was Wendy’s word.
“I say,” cried John, “why shouldn’t we all go out?”
Of course it was to this that Peter had been luring them.
Snippet taken from “Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie

This technique immerses the reader in the experience, allowing them to feel the rush of wind and the dizzying heights, rather than just reading about them. It’s a powerful way to engage readers and let them discover the essence of Neverland and its inhabitants for themselves.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

In “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett masterfully employs the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique to immerse readers in the narrative. For instance, instead of simply stating that the garden was in a state of neglect, Burnett describes it through the protagonist’s eyes:

There were neither leaves nor roses on them now and Mary did not know whether they were dead or alive, but their thin gray or brown branches and sprays looked like a sort of hazy mantle spreading over everything, walls, and trees, and even brown grass, where they had fallen from their fastenings and run along the ground. It was this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious.
Snippet taken from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This vivid description allows readers to envision the garden’s condition and feel the potential for transformation that the garden holds, without directly being told about it. It’s a powerful method that engages the reader’s senses and emotions, drawing them deeper into the story’s world.


Mastering the art of ‘show, don’t tell’ is a skill that can elevate your storytelling to new heights. By employing vivid descriptions, engaging dialogue, and subtle character development, you can create immersive and compelling narratives that captivate readers and leave a lasting impression.

From engaging the senses to allowing room for reader interpretation, these tips provide valuable insights into how to craft dynamic and impactful stories that resonate with audiences of all ages. Now, it’s your turn! We’d love to hear from you. Do you have any favourite examples of ‘show, don’t tell’? Or perhaps you have questions or tips of your own to share? Leave a comment below.

Show, Don’t Tell

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