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        What Is Show, Don’t Tell? (Meaning, Examples & 6 Tips)

        • calenderFeb 05, 2024
        • calender 5 min read

        Imagine creating a vivid fictional world that makes the story unforgettable for readers. That’s the magic of the show, don’t tell principle. In this article, we’ve explained the meaning of this principle with amazing show, don’t tell examples. From incorporating literary devices to using dialogue creatively, we’ve covered everything! 

        With this, we’ve given 6 useful tips to create a mesmerizing fictional world. So without any delay, let’s delve into the details! 

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        What is show, don’t tell in writing? 

        Show, don’t tell in writing involves describing actions, and sensory experiences instead of directly stating facts. It includes conveying details about sounds, smells, tastes, intriguing visuals, and experiences. This helps readers to experience the story through the characters’ perspective. To understand this better, let’s see the difference between show vs. tell. 

        Show: “All the ground was covered with grass of a wintry brown and out of it grew clumps of bushes which were surely rose bushes if they were alive. There were numbers of standard roses which had so spread their branches that they were like little trees.” (From The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) 

        Tell: The garden was beautiful. 

        In the words of Mark Twain, “Don’t say the old lady screamed – bring her on and let her scream.” Before we see the 6 tips, here are 2 amazing examples of this writing technique. 

        Show, don’t tell examples from literature  

        1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K Rowling 

        “Once, Aunt Petunia, tired of Harry coming back from the barbers looking as though he hadn’t been at all, had taken a pair of scissors and cut his hair so short that he was almost bald except for his bangs, which she left to “hide that horrible scar”. Dudley had laughed himself silly at Harry, who spent a sleepless night imagining school the next day, where he was already laughed at for his baggy clothes and taped glasses.” 

        In the above example, instead of telling readers that Harry was worried, the author mentions Harry’s sleepless night, indicating his worry. This reflects the show, don’t tell principle. 

        2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

        “The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right. I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away. All that was left was the body, the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.” 

        Here, instead of directly stating the boy died, the author describes his death using the phrase “loosened his soul”. This illustrates the show, don’t tell principle. 

        After seeing these two examples of show, don’t tell, let’s see the 6 practical tips to implement this principle. 

        6 tips to use the show, don’t tell principle 

        Here’s how to show, not tell while writing: 

        1. Depict the character’s inner thoughts 

        Use internal monologue and metaphors to depict the characters’ thoughts. Internal monologue involves directly showing the characters’ state of mind. On the other hand, metaphors are comparisons of dissimilar ideas. Here are examples of these literary devices

        • Internal monologue- “Suddenly, a chilling thought occurred to her. Had the man been waiting for her, or was this just a coincidence?” (From Are You Afraid of the Dark? by Sidney Sheldon) 
        • Metaphor- “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” (From The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. 

        2. Use symbolism 

        Symbolism means using objects, animals, birds, and characters to represent abstract ideas. This technique helps readers connect better with the story’s themes. Following is an example of symbolism: 

        • “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…but sing their hearts out to us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ) Here, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence and beauty and helps relate to injustice and the loss of innocence mentioned in the novel. 

        3. Create a dynamic setting 

        You can create a dynamic setting by depicting the atmosphere, characters’ moods, and foreshadowing events. One way authors can do this is by describing weather details. For example, stormy weather can symbolize impending doom. The weather can also reflect the characters’ moods. Here are some show, not tell examples: 

        • “There was no wind, and, being dead calm, there seemed to be no cloud, no sea, no sky, no horizon; only gray mist, all one, absolute.” This setting creates a sense of foreboding. 
        • “As the light began to fall, so did Anna’s spirits, her mood as gray and uneventful as the sky.” Here, the weather reflects Anna’s mood. 

        4. Use body language 

        Illustrate the characters’ emotions and feelings through body language and facial expressions. This will help readers think from the characters’ point of view. Some ways to do this are: 

        • Portray emotions through physical reactions- For example, instead of directly stating that a character is nervous and scared, you can describe how their hands tremble, they sweat, their breath quickens and they are unable to maintain eye contact. 
        • Convey feelings through posture- For example, a character standing up straight with his head held high can indicate confidence and pride. In contrast, slumped shoulders and a bowed head can reflect sadness or insecurity. 

        5. Show how characters are emotionally impacted 

        Instead of directly stating the characters feelings, describe how past actions impact the characters (positively or negatively). You can do this by portraying character reactions and using flashbacks. Following are some show, not tell examples of how Khaled Hosseini skillfully accomplishes this in A Thousand Splendid Suns

        • “Goodbye, Mariam.”  And with that, unaware that she is weeping, Laila begins to run through the grass.” (Laila’s reaction) 
        • “But now, here in this place, it’s easy to summon Mariam behind the lids of her eyes: the soft radiance of her gaze, the long chin, the coarsened skin of her neck, the tightlipped smile.” (Laila remembering Mariam, a flashback). 

        6. Creatively use dialogue 

        You can write dialogues to portray emotions and conflicts, instead of blandly stating essential details. Following are some ways you can do this: 

        • Use incomplete sentences- You can include incomplete sentences to show the character’s emotional turmoil, and reluctance, or to depict the character being overwhelmed by something. For example, “I just can’t believe she…I mean, after everything we..” Here, the incomplete sentence reflects emotional turmoil. 
        • Use repetition to create an impact- Repeat a word or a phrase to show the character’s emotional state. For example, “What if they don’t like me? What if they laugh?” Here, the repetition of the phrase “what if” shows anxiety. 

        We hope this article has helped you understand the narrative technique of show, not tell. You can bookmark this article for future reference about how to show, not tell. Once you finish writing your first draft using this technique, the next step will be to edit your content. As experts in editing and proofreading services, we’d love to polish your writing! 

        Here are some other articles you might find interesting: 

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        Priya Linkedin

        Priya has a talent for academic research and enjoys simplifying complex topics. When she's not helping students improve their writing, she can be seen reading poetry, playing the harmonium, or learning classical dance.

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