“Show, don’t tell” is a mantra that writing teachers quote to conceal the challenges of story crafting, and their students regurgitate it to sound insightful—whether they understand the concept or not. It’s lasted through the decades because it defines the difference between engaging and boring fiction.
Usually writers apply “show, don’t tell” to setting descriptions and character emotions, which breathes life into a scene (and prevents info dumps). But the technique is meant for more than decorative purposes.
If we zoom our camera out and focus on the big picture, we’ll realize that showing versus telling effects how colorful or grainy it is too. Once we learn to be subtle at this level, the principle will flow into our chapters, scenes, and sentences more naturally.
Shape the Plot to Deliver a Powerful Theme
“Show, don’t tell” isn’t a tool or a sound bite for English professors. It’s the essence of storytelling. Pastors preach sermons from the pulpit, and teachers teach history from the chalkboard. But stories allow readers to experience truth through characters who are struggling to overcome problems in either the real world or a fantastical equivalent.
When a book tells instead of shows, it ceases to be a story. This is why preachiness bothers readers even when they agree that God saves sinners, selfishness causes misery, or lies multiply trouble. They want those truths played out instead of shouted in their faces.
In Peter Pan, one of the primary messages is “Childhood is beautiful, but you need to grow up eventually.” Each moment scores a point either for childhood or growing up. When the Darling children float away to Neverland on happy thoughts, the innocence of childhood warms readers’ hearts. Then, as Tink schemes to kill Wendy, childishness strikes a blow. Captain Hook barges in to slaughter the Lost Boys, and he carries with him the bitterness and fear of adulthood. But, in the end, growing up is portrayed as a fulfilling stage of life through Wendy, who gets married and raises a daughter of her own.
If J. M. Barrie had written an essay instead, we would have nodded our heads to his arguments but not been emotionally moved. He explored the ups and downs of childhood through a story so we could appreciate the beauty and ugliness of immaturity in our fallen world.
This is how “show, don’t tell” guides your story macroscopically. The plot, characters, and setting originate from the message you’re trying to communicate. Creating and connecting those elements is the hardest and most important part of crafting a riveting story. I won’t pretend I have a magic potion that will demystify this abstract concept, but I’ll outline a few strategies to help you turn your story into one that shows and doesn’t tell.
Show the Message in the Ending
What happens in the final chapters of your story? Are the characters rewarded for their kindness? Do moral compromises go unpunished? Poetic justice is one of the strongest ways to highlight your theme. A character’s choices, whether good or bad, should lead to a fitting conclusion.
However, if a football coach becomes a Christian, that doesn’t mean his team will be unbeatable. Though we believe in a righteous, sovereign God, He doesn’t usually dole out judgement in the timing or manner we expect. Sometimes horrible people obtain riches and success. Sometimes kind people are taken advantage of. The world can be unfair, and stories should imitate that. But actions always have consequences.
Say you’re writing a story about an idealistic young man who’s running for political office. His opponent has had shady business practices for years. He could expose the fraud but is unwilling to stoop to those tactics. After he loses the election, you could emphasize your theme with two scenes. First, the villain sips wine in his massive mansion, hoping it will make him forget he’s alone and hated by many. Second, the hero trudges home to be greeted with hugs from a smiling wife and child. The ending is bittersweet, but nobody would accuse it of being artificial.
In real life, the good guys don’t win every battle. But you can still give readers closure even if the hero fails to achieve his goal—and you’ll leave an impression that will stay with them long after they’ve shut the book.
Show the Message in Character Flaws
Characters will (and should) be imperfect. Over the course of the story, your protagonist will either conquer or cave in to his flaws. Within his arc, you can tuck events that will force him to wrestle with decisions that relate to his weaknesses and your theme.
Marvel’s Thor uses this technique masterfully. The heir to Asgard is blind to his own arrogance, so Odin strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. Only when Thor is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others is he counted worthy again and restored to his family.
Nobody had to lecture on hubris for the audience to recognize the film’s moral point. The story itself served as a mirror that reflected Thor’s foolishness and gradual change for everyone to see.
Show the Message in the Story World
I’ve already mentioned Peter Pan, but I love it, so I’m going to talk about it again. It’s set in Neverland, which is the playground of every child’s imagination. Placing the story there instead of a modern office environment immediately puts the theme of childhood on display.
The presence of fairies and pirates and mermaids further enhances the whimsical feel. By building your story world around your theme, you’ll deepen readers’ understanding of your ideas before the characters have even begun their adventures. And when they do climb through a window or clash swords, their actions will clearly convey the message you intended.
Mistakes to Avoid
“Show, don’t tell” is simple yet complicated. Before you dismiss the advice because you’ve heard it a thousand times, roll it around in your mind. You might think it bars you from including sermons, narrational monologues about the virtues of forgiveness, or a wise mentor who supplies the hero with all the answers. And you’re right—those are instances of telling that you shouldn’t resort to.
But you also shouldn’t broadcast your message anywhere. You can’t sneak it into an emotional confession or clever villainous dialogue. If you disclose it through any form of telling, you’ll cripple your story. Let readers discover truth by watching it transform the characters’ lives—and then their own.
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing. His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.