Show, Don't Tell

Learn what “show, don’t tell” means and get tips on how to create images for your readers.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #246

Can You Ever “Tell, not Show”?

You may have noticed that it takes many more words to show rather than tell. A story that is filled with such detailed descriptions could become tiresome, so just as you mix long sentences with short sentences to create variety and keep your readers interested, it’s often wise to mix sections that show with sections that tell to keep your story moving.

Use Metaphors and Similes to Show Your Ideas

It’s often wise to mix sections that show with sections that tell.

Most of the descriptions I used in the last example were literal, but metaphors and similes also provide an interesting way to create an image for the reader. For example, if you want to say someone is huge and slow, you could use a simile about an elephant. You could say he saunters like an elephant, methodically forcing his path to a crowded watering hole.

If your protagonist is stealthy, you could use a simile about a falling leaf: She landed under the window like a leaf that had fallen from a tree.

Should You “Show, Don’t Tell” in Nonfiction?

The “show, don’t tell” rule applies most strongly to fiction. You’re telling a story, setting a scene, perhaps even creating a world. You want your readers to use their imagination and bring those characters and scenes to life, and that’s easier for them to do if you’ve started painting the picture.

[[AdMiddle]Nonfiction is harder to pin down. Sometimes it will be appropriate to create an image for your readers, and other times stating the facts is the most effective way to make your point.

Narrative nonfiction is a work in which the writer tells a story, much like a novel, but it’s a true story. For example, the book Marley and Me isabout a man and his dog, and it’s a true story that reads like a novel. It was even made into a movie. In the same way you can make your fiction writing better by including little details that help the readers see the scene, you can also make a narrative nonfiction story better.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a technical document such as a scientific paper or user manual, it’s usually better to stick to the facts. There isn’t a lot of room for flourish when you just want people to push the red button on the front of the device or insert camlock D into hole A.

Of course there are middle grounds. Sometimes an essay, op-ed piece, or newsletter will benefit from creative writing and sometimes it won’t. You have to use your own judgement.

Show the Reader Your Imagination With Your Writing

If you find your writing feeling flat, particularly fiction or narrative nonfiction writing, step back and imagine your scene yourself. What sounds do you hear? What smells are in the air? What expression does your character have on his face? What are his motivations? Once you are deeper in your own imagination, see if you can make your writing better by adding a few specifics and transporting the readers to the scene you have in your mind.

Further Reading


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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