How to Show, Not Tell: The Complete Writing Guide

Diane Callahan
21 min readJun 26, 2021

The girl was scared of the wilderness, her heart pounding at every frightening noise. But suddenly, her fear disappeared. She touched the ground, and it felt like her new guardian.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one, this passage doesn’t actually paint much of a picture — and it fails to make me feel anything as a reader. That’s the core problem with writing that relies too much on telling. We’re told the girl is scared, that the noises are frightening, and that this place feels like a guardian. Yet there isn’t much evidence to back up those claims.

“Show, don’t tell” is a phrase you’ve probably heard often in the writing community, and people can have different definitions of “showing” and “telling.” I define “telling” as any time in the story when an important moment lacks depth in terms of detail or narrative voice. However, telling can also be an excellent tool for controlling the story’s pacing and delivering important information.

Author K.M. Weiland best captures the distinction:

“Showing dramatizes. Telling summarizes.”

But it can be hard to identify weak forms of telling in your own writing.

Telling is NOT inherently bad.

All novels are a blend of telling and showing. You don’t always need to “show” instead of tell. If that were the case, all stories would be ridiculously long and filled with unnecessary descriptions. Telling is useful for quickly conveying the passage of time or presenting key facts to the reader without belaboring the point.

Take a look at how author Amitav Ghosh blends showing and telling in introducing the protagonist Rajkumar in his novel The Glass Palace:

His name meant Prince, but he was anything but princely in appearance, with his oil-splashed vest, his untidily knotted longyi and his bare feet with their thick slippers of callused skin. When people asked how old he was he said fifteen, or sometimes eighteen or nineteen, for it gave him a sense of strength and power to be able to exaggerate so wildly, to pass himself off as grown and strong, in body and judgment, when he was, in fact, not much more than a child.

Diane Callahan

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer.