Thursday, September 14, 2023

Mastering the Art of "Show, Don't Tell" in Novel Writing


"Show, Don't Tell" is a mantra echoed in the halls of writing workshops, critique groups, and literature classrooms around the world. Yet, many budding authors grapple with this deceptively simple principle. The essence of "Show, Don't Tell" is to craft scenes and descriptions that allow readers to infer emotions, settings, and actions, rather than being fed the information. Dive in with us as we explore this transformative writing technique.

Why "Show, Don't Tell"?

  1. Engagement: Showing invites readers to engage with your text. It makes them deduce, feel, and immerse in your world, fostering a deeper connection with your narrative.

  2. Vivid Imagery: It creates a mental picture, making scenes and emotions memorable.

  3. Emotional Depth: By showing emotions, you allow readers to empathize with characters, making them more relatable and genuine.

Examples of "Show, Don't Tell" in Literature:

To truly grasp this concept, let's analyze examples from real novels:

  1. Emotions:

    • Tell: He was angry. Show: His jaw clenched, and his voice turned cold.

    (From "Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling: "Harry's heart gave a horrible jolt. A Death Eater had hit Bill with a curse...")

  2. Setting:

    • Tell: It was a stormy night. Show: Thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain battered the windows.

    (From "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë: “The soft wind breathed through the blossoming orchard trees...")

  3. Physical Appearance:

    • Tell: She looked tired. Show: Dark circles underlined her eyes, and she stifled a yawn.

    (From "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “...her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth...")

  4. Character Traits:

    • Tell: She's a rebel. Show: She smirked, her boots thudding against the "No Entry" sign.

    (From "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen: "Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation...")

  5. Actions:

    • Tell: He's a fast runner. Show: He shot past the others, his feet barely touching the ground.

    (From "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: “...Atticus’s voice was even: 'Do you defend ns, Atticus?' I asked him that evening. 'Of course I do. Don’t say n, Scout. That’s common.'")

  6. Internal Conflict:

    • Tell: She was conflicted about her decision. Show: She chewed on her lip, her eyes darting from one option to the other.

    (From "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger: "Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything...")

  7. Tension:

    • Tell: The atmosphere was tense. Show: No one spoke; their gazes were fixed on their shoes, the silence deafening.

    (From "1984" by George Orwell: “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard...")

  8. Surprise:

    • Tell: He was surprised. Show: His eyebrows shot up, mouth falling open.

    (From "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?")

  9. Relationship Dynamics:

    • Tell: They disliked each other. Show: Neither of them spoke, their glares speaking volumes.

    (From "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell: “His eyes did not leave her face, but he saw her hand go to her heart, pressing against her bosom as though to still pain.")

  10. Atmosphere:

  11. Tell: The forest was eerie.

  12. Show: Shadows twisted between the skeletal trees, the silence only broken by the distant hoot of an owl.

  13. (From "Dracula" by Bram Stoker: “I heard the distant clang of bells, and in the same moment saw a vast sheet of flame...")

How to Incorporate "Show, Don't Tell" in Your Writing:

  1. Use Strong Verbs: Opt for verbs that convey action vividly. For instance, instead of "She walked into the room angrily," try "She stormed into the room."

  2. Engage the Senses: Describe what characters hear, see, touch, taste, or smell. This immerses the reader.

  3. Utilize Dialogue: Instead of saying, "Linda is a gossip," show her whispering secrets to a friend.

  4. Mind Your Adjectives: Rather than writing "an old man," describe his "wrinkled skin, hunched back, and the silver tufts of hair."

  5. Body Language is Key: A lot can be conveyed through posture, facial expressions, and gestures.


"Show, Don't Tell" is a powerful tool that, when harnessed, can transform your narrative. It's the difference between a passive reading experience and one where readers are active participants. As Anton Chekhov famously said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Embrace this advice, and let your story shine brilliantly.