Show, Don’t Tell

You are currently viewing Show, Don’t Tell

When I first started writing, I remember feeling hopelessly overwhelmed by the fact that I had so much to learn before becoming good in that field. Before that, my impression had been entirely different – I had believed that it would only take my imagination and a couple of hours of concentration to create a piece worthy of praise. However, as things are often not what they seem, especially not at first sight, I had a long way to go; to learn, practice, create, fail, try again, explore, and so on.

Pursuing my dreams, I have read a countless number of books, articles, and blogs on how to write well. I also watched quite a few interviews with well-known authors, offering advice to us aspiring but inexperienced writers. Of course, different people would give different advice, but one thing, in particular, was mentioned almost everywhere I looked, and it was a – “show, don’t tell” principle.

Wikipedia defines it as:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarisation, and description.”

Simply put, it’s a method used to give readers firsthand experience, to let them use their imagination, rather than offering a ready-made description to read through blindly.

At first, I was very intrigued because while I was still at university, postmodern literature was my favourite course, and it’s based on the interaction between the book and its reader, literally making them part of the overall experience. But then, when I realised how even the most basic narration could be beautifully put together just by following the rules of this principle, I was completely hooked on it and excited to learn more.

In this blog, I have put together a few rules that stayed with me as the most important ones.

Describe the setting to make it relatable

I have always enjoyed long and detailed descriptions of the book settings. It helped me feel like I was part of it, standing there with the characters, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, or even sometimes enjoying the specific scent of the room where the plot takes place.

But, what is a good description? Is it similar to hyper-realism in art, where paintings can hardly be differentiated from photos? Or does it allow a certain freedom of imagination the reader could enjoy?

Most sources say that a good description should provide necessary or unique details to help the reader form the visuals but not overwhelm them with too much information.

Leaving room for freedom of imagination makes the story more relatable. Readers get to adjust the description according to their own experience. And relatability is one of the crucial factors in establishing an emotional attachment with the audience.

Show them how you feel without saying it.

Good writing can always evoke powerful emotions in its readers. That is how literature impacts society.

If we describe what we feel, smell, see or hear when overwhelmed with fury, rather than just saying ‘I am angry.’, we help the reader experience all those things with us. It helps them understand the characters better.

When I read books with a powerful portrayal of emotions, especially those that tackle many different emotional states, I feel like that experience becomes part of my real-life experience, like I have been through those emotions myself.

Those stories where the author painstakingly describes the smell of morning coffee, the taste of the first sip, or the sound of big city traffic creeping through an open window. Those could all be triggers that remind us of the similar thing we experienced and lead us deeper into the storyline.

Describe the body language, but not its meaning

Body language has always been the universal language everybody uses, mostly not even aware of it.

Explaining how the character expresses physically what they experience on the inside has a more powerful impact than just saying what happened to them. For example, if we say that the protagonist woke up with a start, while fighting for breath, and grabbing at their chest, while the beads of sweat formed densely on their forehead, then there is no need to say that they had a nightmare; it would be obvious.

Sometimes things we say can be used in different contexts depending on our body language. Other times, there is no need to verbalise something, but describing the body language that follows explains it better than words would ever do.

Resist the urge to explain

This concept is accepted as a general rule, also known as its acronym RUE, and it comes from Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Providing too many details, or explaining every single thing that happens, or giving an answer every time the character does something, telling the readers why they did it waters down the storyline and takes away from the immersive reading, which would otherwise be the wanted outcome of the way the book is written.

I love analysing the character’s deeds, why they behave the way they do, or why certain scenes take place where and when they do, and so on.

I believe that everything we leave for the reader to think about helps develop critical thinking skills, which in my opinion, is one of the main factors that make a good book.

People with well-developed critical thinking skills question everything that happens to them and always dig deeper to try to understand. This further impacts our empathy and helps us develop healthy and stable relationships with others.

Dialogue helps us understand the characters.

When I read a book where a lot of action takes place, especially if a few characters are involved at the same time, I always prefer to have their dialogues, rather than going through ‘and then he said’, or ‘she answered that’.

When we read a dialogue, it contributes to creating the feeling of presence. We are there, with them, listening to them talk. We better understand their emotions, intentions, or thoughts.

One of the main advantages of dialogues is that they directly help develop characters without the need to explain their words, actions, or body language. We follow what they are saying, the way they use the language, how they answer questions if they are boring or riveting, and so on.

So, writing, or as I like to say, ‘the art of writing’, is not just sitting down and doing it. It requires a lot more. But, once we figure out the style that aligns with us, I believe our writing becomes our superpower. That’s why I love it as much as I love reading – I hope my words always find the people that need to hear them and help them in some way. Even when it just helps them enjoy their day more, it’s a significant accomplishment.

Being able to reach so many people bears some responsibility, so I always have it in my mind that my purpose as a writer is to create something beautiful and inspiring for others. It’s the aim I aspire for and continuously work towards.

How do books impact you? What kind of books do you love reading?



Milica Sekulic

In my career, I have tried many things, but writing has always been something I primarily aspired for. Both my BA and MA were in English language and literature, so I’m also passionate about reading and teaching.

Leave a Reply