Techniques for Showing vs. Telling: A Writer’s Guide

By Reed Smith •  Updated: 03/03/24 •  15 min read

Every writer hits a wall where the words on the page don’t quite capture the scene in their head. That’s often due to struggling with Techniques for Showing vs. Telling. This article explores the nuances between showing and telling in storytelling, highlighting instances where each method is most effective. You’ll get practical strategies for crafting vivid sensory experiences and using dialogue effectively.

We’ll explore how these techniques can make your characters feel real and your scenes pop off the page. By understanding when and how to show or tell, you’re not just writing; you’re inviting readers into a world of your making.

Table of Contents:

Defining Showing vs. Telling

Ever heard the golden rule of writing, “show, don’t tell”? Indeed, this golden nugget of wisdom is far from mere words; it transforms your narratives from dull to utterly captivating. Let’s break down why showing often packs a more powerful punch than telling.

The Essence of Show vs. Tell in Creative Writing

Show versus tell is one of those classic debates—like pineapple on pizza—that writers everywhere have an opinion on. But here’s the scoop: when you show, you’re painting a vivid picture in your reader’s mind, allowing them to experience the story through actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your exposition or description.

This technique doesn’t just apply to dramatic scenes with car chases or heartbreaks under sickly white moons but also in subtle moments where body language or sensory details like gasping pools and crawling muds bring life into your narrative summary without spoon-feeding information to readers.

For instance, Writers Digest highlights how master storytellers such as Anton Chekhov advocate for showing over telling by immersing readers directly into action and emotions instead of merely describing them. It turns out that phrases like “powdered rock” or “obscene graveyard” do much more heavy lifting for imagination than we give them credit for.

Why Showing Is Often More Powerful

A well-placed detail can evoke stronger emotions compared to pages filled with narrative summaries. Why? Because reading about someone being sad is nowhere near feeling their sorrow drip off each word they utter—a principle J.R.R Tolkien embraced while describing Middle Earth’s landscapes as if they were characters themselves.

If you’ve ever wondered why some books make you feel like you’re losing yourself within their pages while others fail to spark even an ounce of excitement, MasterClass explains this phenomenon perfectly fine using examples from popular novels where authors opted for immersive storytelling techniques over straightforward narration.

In essence,”showing” allows writers not only develop characters but also build compelling worlds without bogging down word count—an especially handy trick when every word needs to earn its place on the page.

The Gist:

Master the art of “show, don’t tell” to turn your writing from dull to dynamic. It’s all about painting vivid pictures with actions and senses, making readers feel like they’re part of the story.

When to Use Show vs. Tell Techniques

Identifying Moments for Maximum Impact Through Showing

Show, don’t tell. It’s the golden rule every fiction writer has heard a million times, but what does it really mean? When you show your readers something, you’re painting a vivid picture in their minds using sensory details and actions rather than just dumping information on them. Imagine describing a character walking into an obscene graveyard; instead of saying “He felt scared,” describe his sickly white face or how he jumps at the sound of broken glass underfoot.

By employing this method, you transform your narrative into an immersive experience, inviting readers to traverse the storyline hand in hand with your characters. However, mastering this art involves recognizing when showing adds depth and dimension to your tale—a dramatic scene like car chases or subtle hints revealing character relationships benefits immensely from showing.

Recognizing When Telling Serves the Story Best

But here’s where it gets spicy: telling isn’t always bad. There are moments within any story where being direct is exactly what’s needed to move things along without dragging down the pace with too many details. For instance, skipping over mundane activities or quickly summarizing events that have happened off-page can keep your word count tight and focused on advancing the main plot.

Telling can also be powerful when used strategically for emphasis or clarity—like dropping a crucial piece of backstory at just the right moment that reshapes everything we thought we knew about a character. So while showing often steals the spotlight for creating an immersive reader experience, never underestimate telling’s ability to streamline narration and underscore key points efficiently.

To get more insight into striking that perfect balance between show versus tell techniques check out this helpful article.

The Gist:

Show, don’t tell for vivid storytelling. Use sensory details to paint pictures in readers’ minds and make stories engaging. But remember, telling has its place too—use it to keep the pace tight and highlight crucial points efficiently.

Practical Techniques for Masterful Showing

Crafting Vivid Sensory Experiences

Painting a vivid picture with words isn’t just about what you see. It’s a full-body dive into the sensory pool. Think of using sensory details as your secret weapon to make readers feel like they’re right there in the scene, smelling the rain-soaked earth or hearing broken glass underfoot. This approach draws readers deeper into your story world, making everything more real and immediate.

Sensory descriptions aren’t just limited to sight and sound either. Let’s not forget touch, taste, and smell—often neglected but incredibly powerful senses in storytelling. A character running their fingers over powdered rock or gagging at the stench from an obscene graveyard can provide that extra layer of immersion we all crave.

Dialogue as a Tool for Showing

We’ve all heard it before: Show; don’t tell. But how? Enter dialogue—a dynamite tool for revealing character traits without resorting to narrative summary. When characters talk, their language choices reveal volumes about their background, personality, and current emotional state—all without telling readers directly.

Better yet, well-crafted dialogue often serves double duty by advancing plot alongside character development—an efficient way to keep word count down while keeping reader engagement up. The key here is specificity; each line should be something only that particular character would say in that specific situation—it helps develop characters subtly but effectively.

Want to dive deeper into why showing trumps telling? Explore these timeless books where writers masterfully demonstrate the art of revealing, not merely stating. Mastering this technique can transform your writing, taking it to new heights of engagement and depth. Learn more here.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Showing vs. Telling

Finding the sweet spot between showing and telling can feel like walking a tightrope. But, with some practice and know-how, you’ll be doing flips on that rope in no time.

Tips for Balancing Show and Tell

Avoiding common pitfalls starts with recognizing when your story feels more like a lecture than an adventure. Over-telling can drain the life out of dramatic scenes faster than a vampire at an all-you-can-eat neck buffet. Remember, even J.R.R Tolkien had to find balance; too much detail about Middle-earth’s flora could turn epic quests into botany lessons.

So how do you keep readers riveted without bogging them down? Start by using active voice as much as possible—it makes actions pop off the page like popcorn kernels in hot oil. For instance, instead of saying “The car chase was watched by thousands,” flip it around: “Thousands watched the car chase.” See? Instantly more engaging.

Another technique is leaning on sensory details and body language to let readers feel what characters are feeling—without explicitly telling them so. If your main character is nervous during a confrontation, don’t just say she’s nervous; show her fidgeting with her ring or avoiding eye contact.

To master showing over telling further, check out this insightful article from Writer’s Digest. It breaks down why dialogue often works better than narrative summary for revealing character relationships or advancing plot points while keeping word count under control.

In conclusion (just kidding), remember Anton Chekhov’s famous quote: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me its reflection on broken glass. Dive deep into the essence of your tale by painting vivid imagery and allowing the deeds of your characters to echo more profoundly than their dialogue, thus ensnaring readers in the depths of your imagined universe.

The Gist:

Master the tightrope of showing vs. telling by using active voice, sensory details, and body language to bring stories to life. Avoid over-telling; let actions and vivid details immerse readers in your world.

Practice Exercises for Enhancing Your Show/Tell Skills

If you’ve ever been caught in the trap of over-telling rather than showing, don’t worry. You’re not alone. This is a common challenge among writers, yet it’s something that can be refined with dedication and exercise.

Exercises for Showing vs. Telling

Diving into exercises designed to enhance your show/tell skills is like putting on 3D glasses at the movies; suddenly, everything pops. Embarking on this journey of exercises, we’re about to breathe life into dull tales, making them jump out at you as if they were alive.

First up: rewrite a bland sentence using sensory details and actions. Imagine saying “The room was messy.” Now let’s show it: “Clothes lay scattered like casualties of war, and yesterday’s pizza vied for space among a library of forgotten coffee cups.” See what we did there? We painted a picture so real you could almost smell the stale pizza.

Next on our hit list is dialogue as a tool for showing. Have two characters talk about something other than what they’re feeling directly, letting their words hint at deeper emotions or situations. For example, instead of stating “John was nervous,” have him fidget and change topics rapidly during an awkward conversation about weather patterns when asked about his job interview.

Balancing Show and Tell

Finding that sweet spot between showing too much or telling too often is key to keeping readers hooked without drowning them in detail or leaving them lost in summary land.

A quick tip? Use telling for transitions or to succinctly convey facts essential to understanding plot points but dive back into showing mode when aiming to create emotional resonance or vivid imagery around those short stories’ climactic moments where every word counts towards painting that larger-than-life scene – think car chases through rain-slicked streets under sickly white streetlights.

Incorporating both techniques allows your narrative flow freely while ensuring critical information isn’t buried under layers of prose – essentially giving your readers enough guidance without spoiling their adventure through your story world.

The Gist:

Boost your writing by turning “tell” into “show”. Start with simple sentences, add sensory details and actions to paint a vivid picture. Use dialogue subtly to reveal emotions without stating them outright. Balance is key: use “tell” for transitions and facts, but “show” to create deep connections and imagery.

Famous Quotes on Showing vs. Telling Insights from Renowned Authors

Ever wondered how the big guns of literature pull you into their worlds so effortlessly? It’s all in the art of “show, don’t tell.” Let’s see what J.R.R. Tolkien and Anton Chekhov had to say about it.

J.R.R Tolkien’s Quote on Showing

“Describing Mordor as ‘a land of shadow and ash’ is one thing but showing us its ‘sickly white vapors,’ ‘gasping pools,’ and ‘crawling muds’ paints a vivid picture that sticks,” said no one specifically, but it captures why Tolkien’s storytelling technique immerses readers deep into his narratives. When he took us through Middle-earth, he didn’t just tell us about the journey; he showed us every leaf, every shadow, making our imaginations run wild with sensory details.

Tolkien’s mastery over creating an immersive experience lies in his ability to use descriptive language that engages all senses. This method not only enhances the pleasure of reading but also immerses readers, making them feel as if they are within the narrative itself.

Anton Chekhov’s Quote on Showing

Chekhov famously said something along the lines of “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” His point was clear: great writing shows rather than tells reader what’s happening. By painting a picture with nuanced cues and rich imagery, we’re allowed to conjure up entire worlds in our minds without every detail being explicitly explained.

This principle doesn’t mean dialogue or narrative summaries are bad tools; they’re perfectly fine when used right. But mastering showing means your words let readers discover emotions and truths themselves through actions, reactions, or settings – much like putting together pieces of a puzzle without seeing its box cover first.

Diving into the world of storytelling and novel crafting, these nuggets of wisdom are crucial for anyone aiming to enhance their narrative skills, ensuring that each story not only reaches but profoundly moves its audience by immersing them completely in the unfolding drama.
Learn more about effectively implementing show don’t tell techniques here.

The Gist:

Dive deep into the worlds created by Tolkien and Chekhov to see how they masterfully use “show, don’t tell” techniques. From Middle-earth’s sensory details to the subtle glint of moonlight on glass, these authors teach us that engaging all senses and leaving room for imagination makes stories unforgettable.

Strategies for Implementing Show Don’t Tell Techniques

So, you’ve heard about the golden rule of writing: show, don’t tell. But how do we weave this into our narratives without sounding like a broken record? Let’s explore some strategies that are anything but basic.

Crafting Vivid Sensory Experiences

To make your readers feel like they’re part of the story, sensory details are your best friend. Picture this: instead of saying “the sun set,” describe how the sky blushes in shades of pink and orange, or how the air cools as shadows grow longer. By weaving in these rich descriptions, you pull readers directly into the tapestry of your narrative.

Sensory descriptions go beyond sight; think sounds of chirping crickets signaling nightfall or the scent of rain on dry earth awakening senses. By zeroing in on the deeds and weaving intricate details that tap into the quintet of senses, you sculpt an immersive journey rather than merely narrating an event.

Dialogue as a Tool for Showing

The way characters talk can reveal volumes about their personalities without explicitly stating it. When characters interact through dialogue, it lets their traits shine naturally. If someone speaks in short, clipped sentences, it might hint at impatience or anger without ever needing to say so directly.

This approach helps develop characters subtly over time—slowly revealed layers keep readers hooked wanting more insights into each character’s psyche.

Focusing on Actions Over Adjectives

Action speaks louder than words—or in this case—adjectives and adverbs. Instead of relying heavily on describing feelings (e.g., “She was furious”), showcase actions that convey emotions (e.g., “Her hands clenched tightly”). Employing this technique crafts a more vivid imagery for the audience, streamlining the narrative by cutting down on superfluous detail.

Remember these tips next time you’re tempted to tell rather than show—it’ll transform not just scenes but entire narratives making them unforgettable experiences.

The Gist:

Transform your writing by crafting vivid sensory experiences, using dialogue to reveal character traits, and focusing on actions over adjectives. This brings scenes to life, making stories unforgettable.

FAQs in Relation to Techniques for Showing Vs. Telling

What is the difference between showing and telling techniques?

Showing lets readers experience the story through actions, senses, and feelings. Telling simply informs them.

How do you show instead of telling?

Use vivid sensory details, dive into characters’ thoughts and emotions, and let dialogue reveal personality.

How do you master showing vs telling?

Hone in on specifics. Swap vague descriptions for concrete images. Practice turning tells into shows.

What are techniques of showing?

Incorporate body language to express emotion, use dynamic verbs for action scenes, and describe settings richly.


Mastering Techniques for Showing vs. Telling transforms your writing, making scenes come alive and characters feel real. Key takeaways? Use sensory details to immerse readers, let dialogue reveal personality, and balance showing with telling for pace.

Show don’t tell breathes life into pages. But remember, telling has its place too—use it wisely to push the story forward when needed.

Hone your skills by consistently engaging with these methods, transforming them into second nature. Consider them not merely as regulations, but as instruments at your disposal in the artistry of writing.

If you want stories that grip readers from start to finish… Start by showing more than telling. Then watch as your worlds unfold vividly in the reader’s mind.

Reed Smith

Reed is the founder and builder of Habit Writing and enjoys all things writing. He loves learning about the craft of storytelling, writing messy drafts, and playing board games with his wife, friends, and family.