Showing vs. Telling in Fiction: Some Tools

showvstellI did a workshop this past weekend at a writers conference on showing versus telling in fiction. I prepped for it and made a powerpoint and a handout and practiced what I was going to say and had hands-on writing exercises and everything. People who took the workshop said they got something out of it, but I can’t help feeling like I didn’t quite hit the nail on the head with this. Oh well. Here are some tips, stolen from my handout:


Verbs are your friends: For example, you could write “Hermione walked to the library.” Or, you could try, 

Hermione snuck to the library.

Hermione trudged to the library.

Hermione marched to the library.

Sometimes using a strong verb can create a more powerful image than using an adverb. For example, you could write, “Ron wrote his name messily on the chalkboard.” Or, you could try,

Ron scrawled his name on the chalkboard.  or  Ron scribbled his name on the chalkboard.

Don’t forget the details, details, details! For example, look at this beautiful paragraph:

Harry took the wand. He felt a sudden warmth in his fingers. He raised the wand above his head, brought it swishing down through the dusty air and a stream of red and gold sparks shot from the end like a firework, throwing dancing spots of light on to the walls. Hagrid whooped and clapped and Mr. Olivander cried, “Oh, bravo!”

 You can show character through dialogue.  For example, if you know Draco is an elitist; Draco is arrogant; Draco is self-important, then you might, like J.K. Rowling, write a sentence like this:

“You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

This isn’t magic or rocket science. It’s stronger, more vivid writing.  You are trying to create a visceral connection between your reader and your work, not just an intellectual one. So go for the guts, not just the head.


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10 responses to “Showing vs. Telling in Fiction: Some Tools

  1. Judy R

    Thanks, Linda! Your post prompted a bit of a writing workout, I thought I’d share. This is great to do when battling writer’s block or just plain ole procrastination. Write about anything. I find many fellow writers tend to overuse the words, felt and then. Instead, we should paint a vivid picture using as many of the five senses possible.

    Nancy felt afraid as she crossed the dark room. Then there was a knock on the door. Vs.

    Nancy inched toward the locked door. A sliver of moonlight crept into the room through the ripped window shade. The acrid smell of sweat and urine made her stomach lurch. Tears streamed down her face, and she comforted herself with trembling arms. Wondering if she’d ever escape, she started at a sudden timid knock. Nancy’s eyes widened and her throat constricted.

    “Who’s there?” she whispered.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, I’m at a crucial point in revisions and can really use this advice.

  3. I always wonder if what should be said isn’t so much show don’t tell but evoke don’t tell. Evoke the feeling in me, don’t tell me the character was scared, etc. Showing works for minor stuff, but for the big stuff I need to feel what the character did, not be told how the character felt.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Linda! The hard
    Part is finding those ‘juicy’ adjectives. I
    Need Ron’s wand!

  5. I think I got better at the “show don’t tell” thing at sentence level rather quickly, but taking it further to apply it to the elements of storytelling is where I’m still trying to push myself.

    I keep reminding myself that if my dialogue is strong enough, then it’s enough to show the readers what could be happening, so that I don’t have to interrupt it all with needless telling narrative beats.

    Then I also try and really ponder on what needs to be told in a story versus what needs to be shown in terms of scenes. When should I speed things up by narrating, and when should I stop and show something in detail? I’ve caught myself narrating things that as a reader, I would expect to see. And of course, vice versa.

    That’s Show Don’t Tell 2.0.

  6. I think they’re great examples. Of course, they’re not to be considered as a recipe to apply for every novel, I think the writer must work out his/her own tools, but these examples give interesting hints for how to begin with Showing vs. Telling