Show Don't Tell

We have new writers joining us at The Story Mint and it is wonderful to see the variety of talent and approaches these writers take to their writing. Our role at The Story Mint is to encourage and guide with helpful feedback that comments on what they did well and how they can add value to what they have written.

I often find that writers who are starting out often tell a story rather than show the reader what is happening. This is known as ‘show don’t tell’. It does mean the writer does not skim over details but rather becomes involved with them as the show part of the narrative needs teasing out from the words on the page.

However, showing a story rather than telling it is usually the difference between keeping a reader engaged or disengaged.

Robert J. Sawyer describes the difference between show and tell in the following way and uses an excellent example.

So how do I describe the difference between the two?

‘Telling’ is the reliance on simple exposition: An old woman, called Mary, moved across the room.

‘Showing,’ on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room. She supported her hunched form by gripping a polished wooden cane in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand.

Both showing and telling convey the same information — Mary is old — but the former simply states it flatly, and the latter — well, read the example over again and you'll see it never actually states that fact at all, and yet the reader knows she is old by the description.

Some exercises I suggest our writers use to practise showing are:

  1. Describe the body language of a couple arguing in a room. Do this without using any dialogue
  2. Describe a group at a mall playing with a hacky sack and the manager getting them to move on using two lines of dialogue
  3. Describe a garden
  4. Describe a tree buffeted by a growing storm.
  5. Describe a couple bringing home their newborn baby. Again no dialogue.

There are many more exercises and anyone who is keen to master this skill will find examples on the Internet.

However, here is my example that illustrates the difference between ‘show don’t tell’.

Telling: The waiter delivered the coffee to Harold who had dropped in for a quick break and to read a letter.

Show: Steam rose in enticing little puffs from the white porcelain cup as the tall waiter with slicked back black hair delivered the coffee Harold had ordered. Harold looked up from the letter he was frowning over as the waiter placed the cup with a tiny tap onto the table. Harold’s mouth, stern to this point, relaxed a little into a brief half smile as he murmured his thanks in a low, troubled voice.

And we find ourselves asking a number of questions. Why is he troubled? What is in the letter? Who is it from and so on.

‘Show don’t tell’ carries a story forward while also painting a picture of the present. Clever use of this technique is the sign of a very good storyteller. They take the time to draw the picture for the reader without telling them how they should react to what they visualise. That is the work of the imagination.

show don't tell
engaging readers


Suraya, you have perfectly presented the concept in an easy to understand way. Brilliantly done.