Showing and Telling

Photo by Aljoscha Laschgari on Unsplash

Visionary Writing Techniques #14

by John Onorato

No, “showing and telling” isn’t a reference to what you might have done in elementary school. Then again, there are some parallels. Read on to find out what they are.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

— Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright, 1860-1904

The quotation above is a maxim of writing you’ll hear again and again: “Show, don’t tell.” It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an essay for the Visionaries, working on a novel, or even a narrative podcast. “Show, don’t tell” is still one of the primary guidelines for writers both new and experienced.

But what do I mean by this?

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s Break It Down

Put succinctly, when a writer ‘tells’ us something, they’re summarizing or using exposition to tell the reader what’s happening. Telling is sometimes required, yet it often feels flat and lifeless.

On the other hand, when a writer shows the reader something, they describe what’s going on. They use action to help the reader paint a picture in their minds. Use your words well, and you’ll enable your reader to craft a movie in their heads.

Confused yet? Here are some examples.

Fred was sad when his girlfriend left.

Fred tried to hide his tears as he watched his girlfriend board the train back to college.

Here’s a longer example, especially crafted for the season we’re in right now:

The house felt spooky.

Lit by a single candle, the room flickered with uncertain shadows. The house smelled like rotting wood and decaying meat, with a bright metallic overtone which made Fred think of blood. The walls were arrayed with strange taxidermy: a buck with crazy eyes, a grizzly rampant in frozen fury, and an owl in mid-flight, its talons molded into a cruel shape.

Granted, these examples lean more towards the fictional. But in the essays we write for this program, as we use examples from our own lives, and as we use concrete examples (both subjects I’ve written about before), we want to create similar experiences in the minds of our readers.

Indeed, creating experiences in the minds of our readers is one of the best ways we have of teaching. And in so doing, we don’t have to make our readers live through the same experiences that we did!

How to Show and Not Tell

In the examples above, showing is more descriptive. It makes the writing vivid and clear. Showing enables the reader to experience what’s going on for the writer, by letting them interpret the descriptions the writer provides.

Consider the “telling” examples. They’re boring, aren’t they? Flat, too. Telling limits the reader’s experience. It gives them but a single way of understanding the story.

So how do you show us things, if you’ve been telling about them for so long? There are at least four ways to do so.

  1. Use dialogue. Even if you don’t remember a scene from your own life that well, use dialogue to recreate a sense of it. ” ‘Don’t you dare walk out that door!’ Fred yelled’ is more effective than “Fred was angry.”
  2. Use clear adjectives and specific nouns. Use them to paint a descriptive picture for your reader. Don’t just tell us that Grandma baked a pie. Describe the golden crimped crust of Grandma’s famous apple-cinnamon pie cooling on the windowsill.
  3. Include sensory details. Yes, it’s entirely possible to give us too many details — just ask Stephen King. Still, it’s usually better to err on the side of ‘too much’ than ‘not enough.’ Show us the sounds, the tastes, the smells and sights of your subject.
  4. Use strong verbs. Don’t say “I walked to the store.” Show us how you skipped, sauntered, strolled, ambled, or even galloped to the store.

An Exception to Every Rule

I get you. Here in the Visionary Program we’re writing about ourselves and our internal narratives. In times like these, it’s usually better to tell and NOT show.

Internal narratives are crucial, since they help us comprehend what made the writer react the way they did in a particular situation. One of the best parts about reading is getting to walk around in another character’s head for a while. To only show everything is to deprive the reader of that pleasure.

So yes, I’ll admit it: Sometimes telling is a better technique than showing, at least when it comes to writing internal narrative.

Why is that? Because showing relies on actions.

“I remember a time when I was angry,” you might say. “I shoved my chair back, leaped up, and pounded my fist on the table.”

This shows us that you were angry, but we don’t know about the nuance of the feeling. Maybe you were hiding a core of fear. Maybe you were internally happy about how things were going, and only pretending to be outraged.

We won’t know unless you tell us.

Most of the time it’s preferable to show us how angry you were by describing what happened to the table when you hit it, or how the room shook when you slammed the door on the way out.

But sometimes, you just gotta tell it like it is.


So there’s no hard-and-fast rule to this stuff. It’s all subjective, and it’s all relative to what you’re trying to do.

But one thing is universal: We all love stories. When you’re writing these essays, whether you realize it or not, and however small it is, you’re telling us a story. And when telling stories, it’s usually better to show us what’s going on, rather than just telling us.

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Posted by John Onorato

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