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Writing

Show Don’t Tell: How to Write Effective Exposition

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once famously said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass." This writing advice can be distilled down to a simple, three-word axiom: “Show, don’t tell.” Whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction essay, or narrative podcast, “show, don’t tell” is one of the golden rules for both new writers working on their first novel and seasoned pros writing another bestseller.

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What Does Show Don’t Tell Mean?

“Show, don’t tell” is a writing technique that allows the reader to experience expository details of the story through actions, sensory details, words, or the expression of characters’ emotions, as opposed to through the author’s own description of events. The goal of showing is to transport the reader’s mind into the story, allowing them to fully experience the characters’ actions and emotions. In other words, the author attempts to show you what is happening through images and action, rather than simply telling you what is happening in narration.

Examples of Show Don’t Tell

Non-fiction and fiction writers share the same goal: to tell a story in the most effective way possible. As a writing rule, showing can help you render scenes and develop characters in a manner that’s more active and vivid than rote exposition. Consider the following examples:

Tell: Jason was scared when he saw the monster.
Show: Jason’s heart raced as a shadowy figure caught the corner of his eye.

Though these sentences contain the same basic information, the show version puts readers into the mindset of the main character through vivid details such as his body language and emotional state. Rather than simply telling the reader that a character is scared, you allow the reader to experience that fear along with the character in real time.

Tell: Kati loved Daniel and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.
Show: Kati held Daniel in her arms, daydreaming about the first time he touched her and what song they might dance to at their wedding.

Though the tell version accurately describes Kati and Daniel’s relationship, the specific details of the show version provide readers with backstory and insight into Kati’s point of view, evoking a feeling of intimacy between these two characters.

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4 Tips for Incorporating Show Don’t Tell into Your Writing

Whether your preferred medium is novels, short stories, or screenplays, it’s essential to know how to accomplish worldbuilding, character building, and narrative progression through showing and not telling. Follow these writing tips to help you show, not tell in your work:

  1. Include sensory details. Not only does packing a scene with sensory details help readers imagine the setting, it also gives your characters a distinct physical world to interact with. Rather than simply saying that a character is in New York, describe the light reflecting off the Hudson River, or the towering colossus of the Statue of Liberty. This can help the scene feel more visceral and immediate, helping readers empathize with the characters.
  2. Use dialogue. Dialogue is a natural way to convey narrative details without relying on dull exposition. Dialogue can also teach readers about characters through word choice, tone, and POV. For instance, if a character speaks in long-winded, erudite sentences, readers might gather that they are pompous and well-educated. If this same character suddenly begins speaking in terse, short bursts later in the novel, readers might note that something in that character has shifted. In that case, the sudden change in dialogue allows readers to draw their own conclusions and glean subtext from what isn’t said.
  3. Use strong verbs. Strong verbs are specific and descriptive, serving the dual purpose of making your writing more vivid while decreasing your word count. Weak verbs are dull and commonplace and will hinder your ability to paint an evocative picture in the reader’s mind. Go through the first draft of your own writing—whether it’s fiction writing, a movie script, or an essay—and look for weak verbs that can be replaced. For instance, if you encounter the word “said” a lot, try to replace it with a stronger verb choice. What about “boasted”? Or “lectured”? Or “quipped”? Strong verbs will improve your work in fiction and nonfiction writing alike.
  4. Use indirect characterization when introducing characters. “Show, don’t tell” is a good rule to keep in mind when introducing characters. You have a choice between direct characterization, which is a simple description that tells your reader what a person is like—“Jane was a horrible girlfriend”—and indirect characterization, which creates a scene that shows exactly what makes Jane such a horrible partner. The second method is usually more powerful when introducing characters because it allows readers to experience them firsthand. It requires more of the reader, asking them to do the work of visualizing the scene and forcing them to ask questions about the character. Learn more about direct and indirect characterization in our complete guide here.

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