7 Lesson 4: Show vs. Tell

What Is Showing vs. Telling?

Great writers over the centuries have tried to explain the difference between good writing vs. plain or non-descript writing, in other words, between showing vs. telling. For example, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So how is showing vs. telling done?

1. Use Specific Nouns

A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. By naming the nouns more specifically writers have answered the readers’ questions: who, what, where, when, how and why. It creates visual images for the readers to see in their imaginations. Notice the difference between these two examples:

Non-specific Nouns: The family was at the lake.

Specific Nouns: The Johnson family–John, Carol, and little Mary–drove to Lake Lilly on Sunday afternoon for a picnic.

2. Use Action Verbs vs. Linking Verbs

An action verb identifies what the person or subject in the sentence is doing. Action verbs move the plot. Often they move the characters from scene to scene. Whereas, linking verbs simply link two parts of the sentence together.

Linking Verb: Sally is at Central Park, in New York City.

Action Verb: Sally limped through Central Park, in New York City.

Notice the word limped immediately engages the reader to wonder why the character is limping in Central Park.

Here is a list of linking verbs to avoid:

  • Is
  • Are
  • Was
  • Were
  • Be
  • Am
  • Been

3.: Avoid Thought Verbs.

In a 2013 article, Chuck Palahniuk, a fiction writer who wrote Fight Club, recommends not using “thought verbs.”  The following are some common examples:

  • Thinks
  • Knows
  • Understands
  • Realizes
  • Believes
  • Wants
  • Remembers
  • Imagines
  • Desires

Instead of using these words, and others like them, writers describe the scene using their senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. The following is an example of how to avoid a thought verb.

Telling: Carl thinks he’s smart.

Showing: Carl, a junior in Mr. Frank’s physics class, spewed Einstein’s formula of converting mass into energy like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. “Who doesn’t know, ?” he said, rolling his eyes at Susan, the girl Mr. Frank had called on to answer the question.

4. Avoid Using Adverbs

Adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Most adverbs end in “ly.” Usually, a more vivid, precise action verb will allow the writer to avoid using an adverb. Read the following example:

Adverb: Kristy spoke quietly to the teacher when she confessed that she stole the doll.

Action Verb Revision: Kristy whispered, “I took the doll, Mrs. Jones.”

Watch out for highly emotive adverbs, especially. The following are some common examples:

  • Angrily
  • Anxiously
  • Begrudgingly
  • Gladly
  • Happily
  • Negatively
  • Sadly

Instead of using these adverbs, describe the scene. Show the behavior (action) of the character that is angry. Describe the behavior of the character that is sad and so on.



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