The “show-don’t-tell” principle is a cornerstone of effective writing, allowing authors to create vivid, immersive scenes that will engage readers. While it’s a powerful tool, it’s also easy to misunderstand, misuse, and overuse. Let’s look at some common mistakes writers make with this principle, and how you can avoid them.
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What does “show-don’t-tell” even mean?
“Show-don’t-tell” is a popular writing principle that instructs writers to show what is happening in the story through vivid imagery and description—be it what the character is thinking or feeling, implications, themes, and other elements—rather than telling the reader in plain language what is happening, why it’s happening, and the subtext involved.
Basically, instead of stating what a character is feeling or thinking in plain language, like, “Sage felt sad,” you’d use description language, imagery, and sensory detail to show that Sage feels sad, like describing her body language, facial expression, and behavior to convey the sadness.
By showing instead of telling, we are trusting our readers to interpret the world we’ve laid out in front of them. This creates more engaging, immersive, and emotionally resonant stories. It can also make characters feel more real, which will help your reader to connect with them.
Is “telling” always bad?
Nope! Showing and telling both have their place in prose, and a good writer will learn how to balance them with practice. Too much showing can make a story drag on, while too much telling will fail to emotionally engage your readers.
Deciding if something should be shown or told is fairly simple, and a case-by-case basis. Does “showing” it increase the tangibility of the moment? Is it something that requires some kind of emotional resonance?
Some things are just boring requirements to set a scene, and sludging through describing it with sensory writing doesn’t actually add anything, so “telling” that portion could be more efficient and keep the flow of your scene moving.
Common mistakes with show-don’t-tell and how to avoid them
While “show-don’t-tell” is such a repeated piece of advice its cliche, it’s still a difficult skill for a lot of writers to master. Here are some of the common pitfalls writers will hit, and how to avoid them.
1. Showing when you should tell
A lot of writers, especially new ones, hear this advice and run with it, refusing to concisely tell their readers anything. While showing is a great skill to have, exclusively describing everything in your story while saying nothing in a straightforward manner can create sludgy, unreadable stories.
Don’t forget that many things should be told. If “showing” the concept takes far too many words and reaches, you’re probably better off stating it simply. If it’s a necessary but incredibly boring detail, it should likely just be said plainly, rather than described in flowery language.
2. Telling when you should show
On the flipside, we should most often default to showing in creative prose. If you find yourself simply stating important things, glossing over what could be an emotional moment, or labeling all of your characters’ emotions rather than describing them with sensory detail, you might be telling too much!
Even in the case where you should be showing instead of telling, the showing can drag on a bit too long. If you over-describe, your paragraphs will become bloated and hard to read, slowing the general momentum of your scene and story. Be sure you’re describing the relevant pieces, not every single aspect of the thing.
And the reverse extreme is also true—some writers may not provide enough detail to fully convey the emotion, action, or setting they are trying to show. While they are technically showing instead of telling, they’re simply not showing enough to convey the point.
5. Ignoring character context
It’s important to consider the context of your character when showing their emotions. For example, if you have a particularly taciturn character who rarely shows their emotions, and they are feeling sad, it wouldn’t feel authentic to have them burst into tears or some other extreme show of emotion to show that they are sad, because it wouldn’t be true to their character.
Try to keep the context of your characters in mind when choosing what to describe to convey what they are feeling or thinking.
6. Failing to balance the two
While “show-don’t-tell” is a useful principle and a good rule of thumb, it is not a constant. Some things are just better off being told than shown, so keep an eye on where you might be over-describing things you should just state in a simple sentence.
7. Defaulting to dialogue
Dialogue is another strong tool for sharing information and insights with the reader, but relying too heavily on character dialogue to share subtext, backstory, and exposition will come off as unrealistic and lazy. Instead of defaulting to writing dialogue, try to incorporate relevant body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues to add nuance to the conversation and scene.
8. Being too heavy-handed
Sometimes writers will try way too hard to “show” every aspect of a scene, resulting in overly obvious or heavy-handed portrayals of a character’s emotions or actions. This can come off as forced, and it may even pull the reader out of the story.
Remember, good writing makes the reader forget they’re reading something that someone wrote.
9. Not varying descriptions
When writers first begin to practice showing, a common mistake is reverting back to the same actions and descriptions for every emotion. One action I have to snip out in my second drafts is characters shrugging one shoulder when they want to seem noncommittal. Other examples would be describing tension in a character’s throat anytime someone is sad, drumming fingers on a table anytime they’re nervous or antsy.
It’s a good practice to keep an ongoing list of words and phrases you notice yourself defaulting to, that way you can just search your document for those terms in revisions to shake those descriptions up with some more unique descriptions.
10. Focusing on the wrong details
Using details is important for writing strong descriptions, but using the correct details is just as important. Thoroughly describing everything about a setting, character, or event won’t do much for conveying an emotion. Focus on the details that tell the audience what you’re trying to say, rather than describing the entire picture as a whole, where each arbitrary detail is given the same attention as the next.
11. Hand-holding the reader
It’s important to trust your reader. A great rule of thumb is to write to your own level of intelligence. If something you wrote is something you could easily understand as a reader, assume your own readers will understand the same things. Over-describing or over-explaining something can bog down your description, slow the momentum of your scene, and patronize or alienate your readers.
12. Falling to cliches
Try to avoid overly used descriptions. It’s impossible to write a book with 100% never-before-seen descriptions, but try to bring your own twist to a description or focus on an unusual (but still relevant and impactful) detail to show what is happening, rather than falling back to stale language. There are plenty of literary devices to help you avoid cliches.
13. Sacrificing clarity and readability
We all love a good bit of artistic prose, but be sure you’re not trading readability for prettiness. Getting too artsy with the details we choose and the descriptions we craft can muddle the focus and purpose of a scene. While striving for originality and uniqueness, don’t lose sight of writing a scene your reader can understand and enjoy.
14. Forgetting to check for flow
The general purpose of balancing showing and telling is to keep your scenes flowing effectively, while also conveying emotions and concepts in an engaging way. If you aren’t reading your scenes back to check for flow and readability, you may be doing yourself more harm than good by trying to apply the show-don’t-tell principle to your writing.
15. Forgetting the story’s purpose
Ultimately, the purpose of this writing rule (as well as all others) is to create an engaging, emotionally impactful, readable, and entertaining story. If you use any writing guide or piece of advice too rigidly, you’ll trap yourself into a cage and likely fail to accomplish your ultimate goal with the story. Keep your purpose and intention in mind while writing, so you are the one writing the story, not an amalgamation of writing advice stacked up and wearing a trench coat.
Avoiding these fifteen common show-don’t-tell missteps and focusing on creating balanced, nuanced scenes that blend showing and telling, you can write stories that truly emotionally resonate with readers.