Show, Don’t Tell!

If you ever take a writing class, sign up for a correspondence course, or hang out with a writer who loves to talk about the subject, you’ll hear this bit of advice sooner or later. It may seem meaningless at first. A photographer shows, a writer “tells”–right? Isn’t that all a writer can do?

Stand back and let the instructor pounce: aHA!


Slightly exaggerated, but generally true


A writer creates pictures just as a painter or a photographer does. Only, instead of a brush or a shutter, he uses details to help the reader “see.”

I can tell you this:

Charlie looked sad.

Or I can show you this:

Charlie’s rear end sagged and his head drooped so low his ears dragged on the ground.

The second sentence not only shows you Charlie’s emotion, but also reveals (or should, if you were paying attention) that Charlie is a four-legged animal, most likely a dog.

The second sentence is also longer than the first. Details will usually make a sentence or a paragraph longer, but that’s not their purpose. A writer doesn’t add details to fill up the required number of pages that the teacher or editor asked for. The purpose of writing is to communicate, either through sensual details, or brainy facts, or both.


Check out these comparisons:

The passengers on the plane looked sleepy as they gathered their luggage.

As the pilot announced the end of their six-hour flight, the passengers yawned and rubbed their eyes while stuffing stray personal items into carry-on bags.

(I could go on and on about what sort of personal items were being stuffed into what sort of bags, but enough’s enough.)


Here’s another comparison:

The house seemed deserted.

A floorboard creaked under my foot as I stepped over the threshold. Not even a curtain stirred at the open window as my eyes swept the room, and the ticking clock over the mantel echoed in the stillness.


All the examples above apply to stories or descriptions. What about report writing, where you’re just trying to communicate the facts about the Gettysburg Address, or Dutch elm disease, or white blood cells? If you neglected to do your research, a host of vivid details and showy word pictures won’t hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But assuming that you do, a few instances of showing vs. telling in your paper will make it much more interesting, and may even make the difference between a B and an A. One good place to create a word picture is at the beginning, or introduction:

The applause of the crowd swelled to a crescendo as the stoop-shouldered man with the deeply-lined face stepped forward to deliver his remarks . . . .

Once upon a time, every town in the northeast United States boasted streets lined with stately trees whose arching branches met over the heads of pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages . . . .

The milky-colored enforcer lurks in the blood stream, ever-vigilant against invaders who threaten the body with disease . . .

(The last example is a metaphor–remember metaphors? It also may be stretching a word picture too far for a factual report, but I say go ahead and have a little fun.)

For practice, replace each of the following sentences with a sentence (or two) that shows, rather than tells:

Mr. Napoli looked angry.

My little brother was excited.

We were in a dangerous situation. (Make up a dangerous situation before you try to show it.)

I felt peaceful here.


Now, write an entire paragraph using details to communicate the idea of the following sentences:

My grandmother’s street looked scary in the moonlight.

It’s fun being with my best friend’s family