“Show, don’t tell” is some of the most common writing advice you’ll see out there today, but what does it actually mean? Post contains affiliate links.
My favorite quote/example to illustrate this point is from playwright Anton Checkov:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Let’s start with some examples:
TELLING: I walked down the path behind my house. It was winter and it was freezing.
Here you can easily see how the writing tells the reader explicitly that it’s winter and it’s cold outside. But this is an easy thing you can show the reader instead:
SHOWING: I walked down the snowy path behind my house, hunching my shoulders against the bitter wind and jamming my hands further into my warm pockets.
Now we show the reader that it’s winter by showing a snowy path, experiencing bitter wind, and the relief of warm pockets.
TELLING: Keri looked at the note, feeling anxious.
The key telling word here is “feeling”. Emotions can better be shown through dialogue, or action:
Keri looked at the note, her heart racing as she bit her lip.
A great resource I recommend for showing emotions is the Emotion Thesaurus. This book has a ton of ways you can show your character’s emotions physically, internally, and verbally.
TELLING: Alex took his phone back from Martina, telling his friend he’d see her later, even though he didn’t mean it.
Here, the obvious telling is from the word “telling” onward. Again, actions and actual dialogue can help to show the reader:
SHOWING: Alex yanked his phone out of Martina’s hands. “I’ll see you later,” he lied, and walked away, his breathing fast.
Using “lied” instead of “telling his friend he’d see her later, even though he didn’t mean it” also simplifies the writing, making it much cleaner.