[Podcast] How to Show Not Tell in Your Writing

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Nov 07, 2022

If you’ve spent time searching for tips on writing, you’ve probably come across the phrase “show not tell.” It’s a tip authors, editors, and agents commonly throw out. But what does it mean?

“Show not tell” is a scene-building technique. It’s how you, as the writer, describe the experiences of your characters (or yourself) by engaging the senses.

“Show not tell” is applicable to all forms of writing—nonfiction, fiction, and memoir alike. It draws the reader into your writing. Immerses them in your book.

While “show not tell” is important to engaging your reader, it can be tricky to implement. It often demands you slow down. Place yourself into the scene. Ask deeper questions about your characters and setting.

To help you better understand this technique, check out the three tips below. And be sure to listen to our podcast to pick up three more tips! 

“I saw” “I heard” “I felt”

One of the easiest ways to engage your reader through “show not tell” is to flag sensory phrases—phrases like “I saw” or “I heard” or “I felt.” These phrases usually lead to surface descriptions rather than drawing the reader into the sensory experience.

Instead, draw your reader into your scene by using imagery that engages the senses.

Return to your elementary-school days and remember your lessons on the five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. How can you show these senses in your writing? Can you describe the taste of the food? Or the smell of the setting (freshly brewed coffee in a café? The manure of a farm?)?

Here’s an example from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

“Standing to Liesel’s left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions.”

Note how Zusak avoids the word “felt”. He could have simply said, “The grave diggers felt cold.” Instead, he shows how cold they are by describing their hands rubbing together and through their whining. (Think about the last time you whined about being cold. I bet you can feel the cold Zusak describes!) Zusak immerses the reader in the scene.

As you review your manuscript, search for the phrases we mentioned above (“I saw”, “I heard”, “I felt”). And challenge yourself to rework them (at least some of them) by showing the feelings.

Strong, Active Verbs

Another way to “show not tell” in your writing is to place strong, active verbs in your scenes.

A weak verb is a generalized description of what’s happening. A strong verb is a more specific description.

Strong verbs build a visual for your reader. And they provide a specific picture of what’s occurring in your scene.

Read through this passage from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

“Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes that Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leaned against her front gate.”

What a passage! Smith employs strong, active verbs to provide specific descriptions about each of her characters and their movements. The reader can feel how cumbersome the boxes are for Archie through verbs like “scrabble” and “wilt.”

Select one of your written scenes and underline the verbs. Ask yourself if there is a more specific verb to describe your character and engage your reader. Does your verb choice show not tell the reader how your character acts?

Overwriting Is More Harmful than Beneficial

Before you rush back to your manuscript and delete every sensory phrase and weak verb and replace them all with imagery-driven details, here’s a warning:

Do not overwrite. 

In your determination to “show not tell,” you may find you have overwritten. Your sentences may become bloated with too many adjectives, too much figurative language, too many images. 

It happens. You’re not alone.

The best writers will tell you that good writing is about practice and restraint. It’s about choosing the best imagery details, the most effective metaphors and adjectives at the right moment in your writing. You must sift through these details and select the best ones.

The only way to correct overwriting is to overwrite. Spit out your sentences with the exuberant adjectives and similes and imagery. Get them onto the page. And then start to cut.  

Ask yourself, Is this too much?

Are your sentences too long? Too bloated with boring imagery? Have you used too many adjectives?

Determine which words are unnecessary. And which will engage the senses, immerse your reader in your story, and keep the reader’s attention.

A friendly reminder: You can learn three additional tips on how to show not tell in your writing from our podcast. Give it a listen here!