Showing, Not Telling?

Lots of beginning writers, myself included, have struggled with the concept of show, not tell. What exactly is the difference between showing and telling? And is there ever a time where you should tell, and not show? I hope to try to explain how I understand the concept of showing and not telling, and to cover a few things which has made my writing better with using (or not using) the suggestion of showing, not telling.

1: The Difference Between Showing and Telling

Showing and telling can often be mistaken for each other. It is probably, at least for me, been one of the hardest things to master. How can you tell the difference between showing and telling? Let’s use two examples, and see which one sounds better.

Example #1:

The wind blew harshly as Jessie walked.

Example #2:

The leaves swirled in the corner beside the large oak to the left of the path, and Jessie’s hair blew back as she went along.

In example #2, I didn’t once use the word wind, but it was clear it was there by my showing of the leaves swirling and Jessie’s hair blowing. Example #1 is an example of telling, while example #2 is an example of showing.

Let’s do one more.

Example #3:

Tex was angry.

Example #4:

Tex’s hands clinched, and the color rose to his face. Something hot boiled up inside of him, and he felt like screaming.

Once again, in example #4, I didn’t have to use the word ‘angry‘. By showing Tex’s actions, it explained that he was angry. Thus, showing, not telling, is sorta like a game of taboo. Don’t tell us Tex was angry. Show us he’s angry, by his clinched hands, heightened color, and the feeling inside. There are plenty of fun ways to show something, instead of telling. Be creative!

Photo by Pixabay on

2: 3 Things To Look For Before Putting A Scene In Telling Format

I would say four times out of five, it is better to show instead of tell, BUT, as in most everything, there is always that one exception.

Let’s say we’re writing a scene where Ben and Jerry have just started off on a journey down a long road, on foot. They have to get to the City of Life so they can warn the king of the impending danger of an evil lord who wants to overthrow him.

Is it really necessary that we describe every single moment of the trip down the road? Do we have to keep describing Ben and Jerry taking step after step? If nothing of any interest is going to go on during the first leg of the journey, it can be suffice to just explain that part of the trip in telling. However, there are three things you should look to see if you can do BEFORE deciding to put this scene in telling format.

1: Can You Build Character Relationships?

This is a very simple way to develop your characters and their relationships and personalities with one another. In our example with Ben and Jerry, perhaps Ben doesn’t like walking and complains about his feet aching. Maybe Jerry doesn’t like complaining, and decides to take more of a leadership role on, and make sure Ben doesn’t step out of line. Ben could even explain to Jerry (and inadvertently your readers) why exactly they need to go to the City of Life. Maybe Jerry didn’t know the reason, but was just a childhood friend of Ben’s who decided to tag along? Perhaps they can go over some funny memories together they made as children. This is a very good opportunity to build and show characters relationships, sub-goals of the characters, and all sorts of other things.

2: Can Something Important Happen Which Can Create A Subplot?

Ok, grant it, I’m not the best at subplots. But this is a good place to throw one in. So Ben and Jerry are stuck at the part of the story where they have to go on a long boring trip? Throw a sub-plot in to keep things moving. Maybe they find a lost little girl on the side of the road, and have to help her back home. Maybe Jerry meets Meghan the peddler on the same road, and decides she’s the special one for him. Just make sure the sub-plot ties into the main plot somehow. Maybe the lost little girl’s mother knows of a quicker back way to reach the City of Life, or Meghan the peddler is actually an enemy soldier in disguise?! Be creative! And make sure that if you do have a subplot, tie up the loose ends at the end of the story.

3: Can Something Happen To Block The Characters From Meeting Their Goal?

Someone once said that writing a story is all about looking to see what the hero’s goal is, and throwing every possible obstacle in their way to try to stop them from obtaining it. We can try that here. Ben and Jerry are walking down the path. No big deal- nothing too exciting. But what if suddenly dragons come and snatch them away, and imprison them in their lair? Now Ben and Jerry have to concoct an escape plan, not just go walking gaily down the road. And if the dragon lair is behind the enemy’s line? Well, you could just have made your plot longer and much more interesting! Think of the possibilities!

If you absolutely cannot do any one of these things, then is the time to put your writing into telling format.

Photo by Pixabay on

3: Helpful Ways To Show Emotions

Here I will show some ways which you can show emotions without coming out and saying them directly. These have helped me out a ton, and will hopefully help you as well!

Ways To Show Happiness:

Show your character:

  • Smiling from ear to ear
  • Laughing
  • All their teeth showing in a grin
  • Speaking in a high pitched voice
  • Giggling
  • With sparkling and/or wide eyes
  • Clapping hands
  • Jumping up and down
  • Or animated

Ways To Show Fear:

Show your character:

  • Covering their mouth with their hand
  • Biting their nails
  • Whimpering
  • Their hands shaking
  • Trembling
  • Their knees feeling like jelly
  • Stuttering
  • Swallowing hard
  • Butterflies in their stomach
  • Their heart pounding
  • Breathing heavily or having shallow breath
  • Experiencing ringing in their ears
  • Having a cracking voice
  • Having sweaty palms
  • Their lips quivering
  • Clinching onto something
  • Or screaming

Ways to Show Sadness:

Show your character:

  • Having tears in their eyes
  • Trembling lips
  • Their head hanging low
  • Slowly dragging their feet
  • Their head in their hands
  • Having a shaky or quiet voice
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Feeling like their heart aches
  • Walking slowly
  • Having no eye contact
  • Being very quiet and/or thoughtful
  • Thinking about home/fond or bittersweet memories
  • Feeling eyes fill up with water
  • Sight becomes blurry
  • Eyes feel like they’re burning
  • Blinking fast, or trying not to blink at all
  • Holding breath
  • Or having red cheeks

Ways To Show Boredom:

Show your character:

  • Pace back and forth
  • Sighing loudly
  • Complaining
  • Playing with fingers
  • Having a blank face
  • Making up stories
  • Rummaging through things like games
  • Or deciding to sleep even though they’re not tired

Ways To Show Shyness:

Show your character:

  • With bashful eyes/ looking down at their feet
  • Speaking softly and quietly
  • Hiding behind things
  • Fiddling with hands or clothes
  • Blushing or reddening
  • Wanting to disappear, hide, or wishing the floor would swallow them up
  • Staying away from others/ standing away from the group
  • Making little or no eye contact
  • Smiling softly
  • Or having crossed arms

Ways To Show Excitement:

Show your character:

  • Running around
  • With a wide mouth
  • Dropping their jaw
  • Squealing/screaming
  • Bouncing up and down
  • Tapping or shaking feet or hands
  • Talking faster than usual
  • Pacing back and forth quickly
  • Waving hands in the air
  • Shouting out loud
  • Breathing deeply
  • Whispering to self
  • Or clapping hands

Ways To Show Anger:

Show your character:

  • Stomping their feet
  • Grunting, mumbling, or yelling
  • Taking deep breaths
  • Feeling their face grow hot
  • Getting red cheeks
  • Smack hands to cheeks
  • Hit or kick something
  • Point a finger at someone/something
  • Narrowing eyes
  • Crossing their arms
  • Rolling their eyes
  • Tapping their foot or drumming fingers
  • Clinching their fists
  • Gritting teeth
  • Hands on hips
  • Veins popping out
  • Slamming a door
  • Or having a tight jaw

Obviously, these are just a few of the many emotions and responses to emotions a character may have. Try to mess around with showing your character’s emotions, and see what fun new expressions you come up with!

Thank you all for reading! I hope this helped you in your writing! God bless! ~CG

4 thoughts on “Showing, Not Telling?

  1. Ah, one thing I sometimes struggle with as a beginning writer, but definitely something that must be learned in order to bring the reader into the story!

    Liked by 1 person

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