What Is Showing vs. Telling? Plus 3 Examples of Good and Bad Uses

When I decided to get serious about writing, I was confused about the concept of showing vs. telling. I just wanted to write short stories that meant something to me.

Then I let people read them, but not just anyone. I picked people who knew a thing or two about craft. English teachers, the adults in my life who recommended books to me, and a lady who became a beloved writing tutor.

Those people challenged things like my sentence structure and word choices, but my writing tutor told me to show my stories, not to tell them.

I bristled. I was already showing them! That’s creative writing! If I wanted to tell my stories, I’d just say them out loud.

She clarified—in words that flew right over my head. My brain fuzzed out and I couldn’t grasp what she was saying, but I was embarrassed, so I nodded like I understood. It took me a while longer to get the hang of things by writing more (some terrible, some good) stories where I played around with my descriptions, narration, word choices, and themes.

Finally, years later, I understood.

Showing is describing the sensory details of your story. It’s diving into the emotional depth of your characters. It’s making the reader feel like they’re watching a movie while they’re reading your work.

Telling is more like narration. There’s no flowery language or sensory descriptions. It’s straightforward, clean, and nearly professional in nature.

Why Is “Telling” Supposedly a Bad Thing?

Clean-cut narration isn’t always terrible. Sometimes it works well for stories told by a narrator with dry humor or books about an intensely serious subject.

Most of the time though, “telling” keeps readers at arms-length. Picture yourself reading a history book. Each page gives you the facts. It might also describe a historical figure or the gory details of a war, but making those people or moments come to life in your mind isn’t the point of the text. It’s to convey information.

That’s what makes stories that rely on “telling” so different from stories that “show” everything.

Practicing makes showing easier, but you can also use a few helpful tools to strengthen your descriptions and storytelling more effectively. For now, let’s study a few examples of story snippets that demonstrate showing vs. telling.

Examples of Telling

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking that it would be easier to picture the difference between these two concepts if there were examples. Lucky for you, I’ve already thought of that.

Example 1: I’m happy to see my best friend at school.

The narrator conveys their emotion, but not what that emotion makes them feel. There’s nothing to paint a picture of the school or even the friend.

Example 2: Henry didn’t like his dinner.

Cool, the character didn’t enjoy their food. Why? What was the taste or texture like? What did he experience that made him recognize the feeling of not enjoying the meal?

Example 3: Sofia made her bed in a hurry.

Why she was in a hurry might come in the next sentence or paragraph, but what did she feel while making that bed? What was her thought process? What’s her room like?

Examples of Showing

Let’s turn those same examples into sentences that “show.”

Example 1: I walk through the clustered school hallways with the rest of the student body, smelling their pre-exam nervous sweat and too much men’s body spray. This school would be miserable, except for my best friend. When I spot her by my dented locker, the smile on her face makes the cold bus ride to school worth it.

This is obviously more than a sentence, but notice how you get a better experience from it. The school hallways are crowded and smell bad. The protagonist doesn’t enjoy where they attend class. However, their best friend is a source of happiness. She waits by a dented metal locker, possibly with some good news, encouragement or an exciting update about something happening in the protagonist’s life. It makes you want to know what she’s going to say, especially because you can relate to what the main character is feeling.

Example 2: Henry’s nose scrunched up at the taste of his dinner. The chicken was in a desperate need for salt. This never would have happened if he had been allowed to make it.

We’ve all had a similar reaction to eating bad food. Your nose scrunches up, your mouth tightens, your tongue freezes. This example shows that in a way that you can feel yourself going through the same physical motions. It also explains why the food is bad using one of the five senses—it’s not salted enough.

Example 3: Sofia pulled her purple comforter tight against her headboard and threw her pillow at it as she ran out the door, late for the bus again.

More scenery details—the bed has a headboard and the comforter is purple. The protagonist is in a rush so her pillow is likely lopsided on the bed, which means the rest of her room is probably a bit messy too. The visual details make this a vivid scene and introduce the reader to a few of Sofia’s relatable character attributes.

How to Spot Showing vs. Telling in Writing

I began to tell the difference by imagining myself reading a single sentence out loud. If I read any of the examples above before the “showing” edits, you’d have questions for me. See if a sentence, paragraph, or page makes you ask yourself:

  • What emotions does the protagonist feel right now?
  • How does the main character look through their body language?
  • What can the protagonist smell, taste, or feel?
  • What does the environment look like and is it necessary to describe it at this moment?
  • Does this scene need dialogue?
  • Do the characters feel flat?
  • Where’s the story’s hook?

The last question is tricky. The hook will be at the start of a short story or shortly within it, much like how a hook is within or at the end of the first chapter in a novel. If your writing doesn’t compel you to keep reading, it’s likely lacking the emotional depth that showing provides.

When Showing Goes Overboard

It’s always possible to have too much showing. It leads to the discussion English teachers always have about how Victor Hugo wrote numerous pages about a single room in a chapter.

You could also fall into the trap of inserting flowery language into your work that you wouldn’t normally use, all for the sake of “painting a picture.” Your writing is your voice! It’s unique to you—how you speak, how you think, how you express yourself through stories.

Write what comes naturally to you while keeping scenery, emotional depth, and sensory details in mind. If your words seem boring, that’s what editing is for (after you finish and step back from your work for a bit!).

Learn What Showing vs. Telling Is

Understanding showing vs. telling gets easier when you can lose yourself in whatever story you’re currently writing. If you’re struggling to do that, you might want to write in a quieter environment or put more details into your story or character outlines.

Have fun practicing this art form and you’ll watch your writing skills grow.

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