Shop Forum More Submit  Join Login
Show, don’t tell (SDT). It’s one of the few consistent pieces of advice that all writers have heard at one time or another. Even the most amateur of writers parrot it back, but knowing the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand it, or how to implement it.

So what does “Show, don’t tell.” really mean? SDT is the idea that instead of telling your readers what’s happening in a story, you show them. This seems like an abstract concept to most of us, but what it boils down to is this: using words to give your readers an idea without having to directly state it. There are many ways good writers do this. It can be as simple as adding a scene for when your character walks down the street to the corner market rather than saying “she went to the store.” but it can also be as complicated as weaving subtext into dialogue and editing entire character personalities to prove a point down the line. I want to look at two examples to try and get this point across in a way that will sink in for you. My goal? To make you really think about SDT and what it means, and how you can implement it in your writing.

My first idea I want you to consider is:

1. Convince your reader of your point by putting them in the character’s shoes.

For example, let’s say I have a character who needs to make a tough decision. I could simply say:

It was a tough decision.

Sure–but it’s not convincing. The reader may say “okay.. so it was a tough decision.” but it’s not going to resonate with them. It doesn’t draw the reader into my story. Why should they care? If I were to take the concept of SDT and implement it, the correct course of action would be to put the reader in my character’s shoes. Instead of telling the reader it was a tough decision, how could I make them waffle over the decision as well?

Let’s say the tough decision was the choice in a love triangle. I know, I know, there are some of you rolling your eyes right now, and that’s probably because more often than not, you’ve run across a book that had a love triangle in it and it seemed like a convenient plot device. That’s probably because the author did a whole lot of telling rather than showing. So humor me. Instead of  having just the character waffle over the decision between the two love interests, it is your duty as a writer (yes I really said duty) to make your reader waffle too. You want to get your readers so engrossed in the story that they don’t care how tired the trope of a love triangle is. How do you do that?

Show your readers why your character wants to waffle. Make the love interests so equally loveable that even your reader has a hard time choosing between the two. That means they both need to have equal part bad to their good and they must be equal to each other. Putting your reader into your character’s shoes is one of the most involved and complicated ways of “showing” but it’s good –no–great writing. It’s hard, because you have to really convince your reader that both the people in this triangle are worth loving, and no, you can’t just say “this guy was really sweet and funny, and the other guy was really sexy and deep”. I’d need to show those traits consistently throughout the story so that I never have to “tell” my reader why they’re both a valid choice. It should be a no-brainer why my character waffled over the decision.

This also applies to describing your main character’s personality. Instead of saying “she was beautiful, shallow, and none-to-bright.” Find ways to prove those points to us. Show an instance where she’s shallow or where her beauty is brought up (like a character that glances at her and then walks into a pole). Show us how dumb she is with her dialogue and actions.

2. Another example of SDT (and perhaps easier to grasp) is the use of subtext to show emotion. The idea behind this is that you should never have to explain how your character feels, their actions and words should show it clearly enough that it never be said.

For example, I’ll take a 1st draft (short) scene from one of my own stories. Yup, I’m throwing myself under the bus. It reads like this:

“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness with a tired note to my voice and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face to calm her.

Mahir’s awkward thumping footfall approached to my left, and he collapsed onto the flat rock beside Sadia.”What?” he asked in a tired, gravelly voice.

“Give me your cloth.” I ordered, motioning it. I could barely see his face in the creeping dark, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me in nervous reluctance. “Just give it here. No one here cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist.

The pain of our feet scraped raw had been our constant companion for the last several hours. Even Mahir was past caring. A low warning growl sounded from behind me, but I ignored it as I tiredly tore Mahir’s loin cloth into strips and begin to bind his feet.

“What about you?” Mahir asked quietly in the dark, a note of concern to his voice. His eyes were focused on something behind me, but I ignored it and kept at my work.

“I’m fine.” I waved off his concern.

“Khet-” he started.

“There’s nothing to be done about it!” I nearly shouted, and Mahir grew quiet. The shrill sound of my voice echoed off the rocks in the dark. “Help your sister to walk.”

It’s not god-awful, but it’s not great either. Now let’s look at the same scene with SDT applied:

“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness, wincing at the falter in my voice. It’d been hours since we’d left the village and my tongue felt like wet clay in my mouth. I cleared my throat and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face. Her small shoulders relaxed, and she leaned against my chest, her sweat-beaded forehead sticking to my skin.

Mahir’s footsteps thumped in an uneven gait from my left, then he collapsed onto the flat rock to the other side of Sadia.”What?” His voice was like gravel crunching under foot, and the skin of his lips had begun to flake off in dry bits.

“Give me your cloth.” I motioned for it, my arm awkwardly swinging out in his direction before falling back to my side. I could barely see his face in the pale light of the moon, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me for a moment, his half-lidded gaze zeroed in on my face. I fought the urge to swallow against the pasty feeling at the back of my throat. “Just give it here. No one cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”

He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist. He held his feet a few scant millimeter’s from the gravel around us, careful not to set them down even as he worked.A low warning growl rumbled behind me, but I ignored it as I tore the loin cloth into strips and began to wrap them tightly around Mahir’s feet.

“What about you?” Mahir’s gaze flicked down to my feet. Even in the dark, the wetness on the gravel beneath them was evident.

“I’m fine.”

“Khet-”

“There’s nothing to be done about it!”. Mahir tensed, and I let out a long breath, purposefully unclenching my hands. The shrill tone of my voice resonated among the rocks around us, and only when the air was still again did I speak. “Help your sister to walk.”

Obviously, the basics of the scene are the same. What changed was the way I elaborated on the scene by “showing” my readers the emotions and subtext of what was happening. I didn’t need to say that they were tired, thirsty, or in pain, but I guarantee you that my reader understood that. I never had to say that the siblings were concerned for one another, or relieved to be off their feet. Go ahead, look back and see if you can find any of these words:  tired, thirsty, pain, exhausted, concerned, or relieved. You won’t find them in the second scene. This is the essence of SDT; to use the narrative and dialogue to present the idea that your character is tired (for instance) without ever having to use the word “tired”. Your readers don’t need to be told how to feel about a scene if you just let them feel it. Put them there in that moment and quit “telling” them about it.

“Show, don’t tell.” is the simplest phrase to parrot out as advice, but the real concept behind it isn’t easy. It’s work. It takes planning and sometimes it can be difficult to spot places where it should be used. Don’t let this discourage you. Hopefully by the end of this article I’ve given you something to think about it, and maybe–just maybe–I’ve given you a better understanding of what SDT really means. The next time you approach an author or a struggling-writer with the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” help them out. Explain it to them. Link them to this article. Parroting the phrase isn’t helpful if the person receiving it doesn’t know what it means. Cut them some slack and give them a helping hand up… we all need one sometimes.

A mini-article on "show, don't tell" and what it really means when it comes to writing. Originally posted on my blog, Author Unpublished: authorunpublished.wordpress.co...
Add a Comment:
 
:iconprecipitous120:
Could you help me with a short piece of writing?

I want to do more showing and less telling, but I still don't know how...

Old habits die hard I guess

If you could be so kind I would greatly appreciate it

____

Silver, White and Grey, ninja of the Leaf, crashed through the forest in search of their missions end. A mission that had already been delayed by the attack on Gaara of the Sand. Branches snapped and the trees fluttered by in a blur, their view of the world around them stood still while they rushed ahead endlessly.

 

Time was short and Arisu, a ninja tracker, knew they could not wait for the Sand ninja to catch up. “I’m over here, try and keep up!” She shouted back to her fellow Leaf ninja, resting her hand against a tree to catch her fleeting breath to the pace she had set. “The ninja of the Sand will have to find their own way if they plan on helping.” She gritted her teeth before pushing ahead once again.

 

 

“Do not expend yourself so readily, we have an enemy still to face!” Fuma the slowest of their group, lugged each of his legs ahead like lead weights. “I am injured and so is my team, do you really believe this is the best course of action?”

 

 

Arisu galloped alongside her wolf hound. “What?! I can’t hear you!” Stopping once more she shouted to the loudest extent of her voice. “Keep up!” Then panting with her wolf hound she held a whisper to her breath. “Kiba, I promise we won’t be late to save you.” Her nostrils flared and still further to the distance Katsumi, Arius’s hound, perked her ears to the unnatural sounds coming from the forest. “Get moving!”

 

The earth underfoot vibrated lightly to the deep impacts ahead. The air shimmered ever so slightly to the scent that was smelt. The bird calls and the animals that flee in distress, they all spoke alarm to the senses of a ninja tracker. Despite what her instincts told her she could not runaway  but confront the danger, because Arisu knew.

 

“That is where my cousin Kiba is”

 


____
Reply
:icontortive:
Tortive Featured By Owner Feb 25, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
I wonder, how do masterfully tell without telling? (In other words, how do you not destroy the Iceberg Theory? [*Sigh*] I guess only Hemingway can say.)
Reply
:iconmelindalee:
melindalee Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2017  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you for this!  Very useful and well explained :)
Reply
:iconenrovi:
Enrovi Featured By Owner May 21, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I cannot thank you enough! (・∀・)
Reply
:iconthems0kitty:
TheMs0kitty Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2016
This is the only explanation of SDT that has ever made sense to me! Thank you so much!
Reply
:iconduperghoul:
Duperghoul Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2015
People always used to tell me this, but I never knew what it meant... thank you.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
you are very welcome :D glad I could help!
Reply
:iconannardunster:
AnnaRDunster Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2015  Hobbyist
I just wanted to complement your writing tutorials. It's not the easiest thing to demonstrate but you manage to do a pretty good job!
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
awwies thank you :)
Reply
:iconannardunster:
AnnaRDunster Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2015  Hobbyist
:)
Reply
:iconladybeelze:
LadyBeelze Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
oh, i had a basic idea of what sdt meant but now it's super clear! 8D thanks!
Reply
:iconrestricteda:
RestrictedA Featured By Owner May 18, 2014
I'm just gonna go ahead and say thanks for all the future trouble you just saved me from.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner May 19, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
XD you are so very welcome
Reply
:iconinkysnowflakes:
InkySnowflakes Featured By Owner Apr 19, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
this has helped me better understand a concept i thought i'd had a good grasp of. thanks a bundle for writing it!
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
you are so very welcome :)
Reply
:iconsilentforestfairy:
Silentforestfairy Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2014
This will be great help for me because I want to write stories in English even if it's not my best language.
Reply
:iconlucian-ciel:
Lucian-Ciel Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
nice to have a reminder if I forget.
Reply
:iconbrainmatters:
Brainmatters Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013
My method of writing SDT (or it would be if I actually wrote stuff) is playing out the scene in my head like a movie, and then describing what's going on in that scene in writing. With movies, you obviously can't tell the viewer anything, you just have to show them, so I think it'd be a good method, yeah?
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Oct 13, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
That's definitely a great step towards writing SDT (I do that myself!) but keep in mind there's a difference between writing images you see and word choice. It's still possible to tell with this method if you aren't actively watching your words.
Reply
:icondainas-fantasy:
Dainas-Fantasy Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This is awesome. I can use ALL the help I can get. :iconbigheartplz: 
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Oct 3, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
haha thanks, and you're welcome!
Reply
:iconthatsparklystalker:
ThatSparklyStalker Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2013
Thanks for this, it's something we easily forget I think when it should be one of the most basic tools in our arsenal. Thanks again.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Sep 5, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
welcome!
Reply
:iconcrazy-aika:
crazy-aika Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Reading this was like an illumination from heaven, even if I have been writing for a while the advices are always good because they allow you to improve.
Thanks for sharing this!
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
:3 You're very welcome.
Reply
:iconkamoodle:
Kamoodle Featured By Owner Jul 20, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
As a novice writer, I learned a lot from this article. It is also encouraging me to retype my first narrative. I am actually more inspired than irritated because I am sure with good practice and using this as a helper, I will make my first story stand out well.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 20, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
:) awwies, I'm glad I could help!
Reply
:iconkamoodle:
Kamoodle Featured By Owner Jul 21, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
I had finished revising my first chapter, and I believe it looks much better than it did before. I also decided to change the pronouns for readers to see in the eyes of my main character. When I read your tip mentioning 'let your readers dive into your character's shoes', I knew that was a strong advice and embraced it as much as I could.

Now all I need are some groups here to help me improve even more through helpful critique.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 21, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
If i may, i'd highly recommend checking out a group like CritiqueCricle.com .. it's a very stable community of authors that get together to crit other author's work. it has a sort of system for earning points for each crit you do, and then spending those points in order to submit your own work. it can be a little slow (some submissions take a week or two if the queue is really long) but I find it really helpful when I need solid, honest advice. everyone there is very objective ^^
Reply
:iconlaska-eira:
Laska-Eira Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
*sigh* well I guess I should change my story from final draft to 3rd draft now huh?

Really though, this is the best explanation of SDT I've ever seen. I thought I had a handle on it, looks like I don't.:depressed:
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
awwies, don't feel discouraged, it may be a pain in the butt, but when you're done I bet your story will be sooo much better. You'll really have something to be proud of :) Just keep thinking about how awesome it's going to be when you're done, it'll make the tedious editing seem a little easier :D Anyways, I'm glad I could help, even if it resulted in more work for you!
Reply
:iconlaska-eira:
Laska-Eira Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Really, I'm ecstatic I found your article! It does mean more work for me, but it mean the final product will be great instead of ok. :)
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
I'm glad I could help!
Reply
:icondancingwolfdragon:
DancingWolfDragon Featured By Owner Jul 12, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
*reads article*
....
it's like a whole new world O.O

back to editing then XD
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 12, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
lmao I just make everything more difficult for you , don't I? XD
Reply
:icondancingwolfdragon:
DancingWolfDragon Featured By Owner Jul 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
kind of XD
But it's really useful! Thank you so much for all these tips :D
Reply
:iconmissstory:
MissStory Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2013  Student General Artist
Ah, very helpful ^^
I'm writing a novel from a child's perspective, and I can easily put my shoes in theirs because I remember what it felt like to be a kid, plus I've had babysitting experience and read one book that was also about a young kid.
I appreciate you posting this. It would seriously help in making my novel a little more exciting. It's first perspective though from the kid's view, and my only question is then would it be alight for a character to say "It's a tough decision" or something direct like that? The comment from ~alphabetsoup314 and your reply has honestly confused me XD
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
haha lets see if i can simplify it... if a character literally says: 

"It was a tough decision." I said. 

That's dialogue. It's okay for them to not use SDT in that instance. It's also okay if they're thinking about it specifically as if they were talking to themselves: 

I had a tough decision to make, but I wasn't planning on giving up.

but otherwise if it's narrative, you should always at least try to work in SDT.
Reply
:iconmissstory:
MissStory Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2013  Student General Artist
Okay, thank you :dummy:
Reply
:iconalphabetsoup314:
alphabetsoup314 Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
While I prefer to draw my stories, I think this was still a useful article. Most of this still applies to visual media, especially comics and animation.

I think "It was a tough decision" could be used in a SDT way, depending on context. A quasi-script example:

BOB: I don't know if this was all worth it. All that we've lost... I just...
JOE: [Putting his hand on Bob's shoulder] It was a tough decision.

Formatting aside, Joe didn't say "I care about you. Please don't beat yourself up," but we can still see that Joe is trying to reassure Bob. Alternatively, depending on the type of character that Joe is, the subtext is, "You did good. Now quit yer cryin and help me carry out my morally questionable plans." Either way, the attempt at convincing Bob that it was the best decision (or at least, not a bad one) is still there.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
Ah but see, that's dialogue. Dialogue should be used to enforce SDT, but SDT doesn't need to be used in dialogue. A character saying "it was a tough decision" doesn't need to be shown, dialogue (keyword: dialogue) is always "told". But if you were narrating the same sentence, then it'd be best to use SDT to enforce the idea (keyword: idea).
Reply
:iconperennialreverie:
PerennialReverie Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Welp, there goes my stories. Haha. Probably will do MAJOR editing after this. Thank you very much for your post.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
You're very welcome :3
Reply
:icondernwine:
dernwine Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
With my dyslexia it was really hard reading this and not reading STD for SDT... >_> Kinda confused me on multiple occasions if I'm honest.
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
lmao, yah i thought about using that acronym when i first shortened it, but it's just so much easier to use than the whole sentence in quotes everytime I wanted to repeat it XD
Reply
:iconniksche:
Niksche Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Sound advice, and the examples are most helpful. I plan on linking this article the next time the topic comes up on the writer's chat I (sometimes) host. Thanks so much for sharing! :)
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
you're very welcome, and thank you ^^
Reply
:iconbanjelerp:
Banjelerp Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Aaaaand now I have to re-write everything.  THANKS, CARY.  JEEZ. ;P
Reply
:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 6, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
lmao it's what I live for.. making your literary world hell. XD (i so sowwy)
Reply
:iconwarriorstaerskye:
WarriorStaerskye Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
as I writer, it's so hard to keep this idea in my mind while I write. Do you have any tips for consciously doing this while writing?
Reply
Add a Comment:
 
×

:icondarlingmionette: More from DarlingMionette


Featured in Collections

Literature by ThexMissingxSpiral

Writing tutorials by verachime

Journals and Advice by Graya7


More from DeviantArt



Details

Submitted on
July 3, 2013
Submitted with
Sta.sh Writer
Link
Thumb

Stats

Views
8,757
Favourites
423 (who?)
Comments
72