Novel Writing Advice

The Art of Show, Don’t Tell: Novel Writing Advice

“Show, don’t tell” is a fundamental principle in creative writing that can take your novel to the next level. It’s not just about providing information; it’s about transporting your readers into the depths of your story. In this article, we’ll explore what “show, don’t tell” means and how mastering this technique can enhance your writing. We’ll also provide practical exercises for you to practice incorporating “show” and “tell” in your own work.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding the concept of “show, don’t tell” is essential for aspiring novelists.
  • Use vivid imagery, descriptive verbs, and immersive details to bring your writing to life.
  • Engaging readers’ senses, emotions, and memories empowers them to actively participate in the story.
  • While “show, don’t tell” is valuable, striking a balance between “show” and “tell” writing is important.
  • Cultivate curiosity, master your craft, and experiment to find the right balance in your writing.

What is “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing?

“Show, don’t tell” writing is a fundamental technique that allows authors to effectively convey experiences and emotions to readers through vivid imagery, descriptive verbs, and immersive details. Instead of simply stating information, this technique aims to create a direct connection between the reader and the world of the writing, evoking sensory responses and deepening the reading experience.

To better understand the concept of “show, don’t tell” writing, let’s take a look at some examples:

Tell, don’t show: John was angry.

Show, don’t tell: John clenched his fists, his face turning red as he unleashed a torrent of angry words.

In the first example, the author tells the reader that John is angry, relying on a simple statement. However, in the second example, the author shows the reader John’s anger through descriptive actions and sensory details, allowing the reader to experience the emotions firsthand.

By employing “show, don’t tell” writing, authors create a “doorway” through which readers can step into the world of the story, immersing themselves in the narrative and engaging their imagination and emotions.

Implementing “show, don’t tell” writing in your own work can greatly enhance your storytelling abilities and captivate your readers. In the following sections, we will explore why this technique empowers the reader, how it sets creative writing apart, and provide tips on how to balance “show” and “tell” in your writing.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing Empowers the Reader

When it comes to writing a novel, one of the most effective techniques you can employ is “show, don’t tell.” This approach allows you to create experiences in the reader, engaging their senses, emotions, and memories. By giving readers the freedom to interpret the writing and feel it in their own individual ways, “show, don’t tell” empowers the reader and enhances their overall reading experience.

By utilizing vivid imagery, descriptive language, and immersive details, you can transport your readers into the world of your story, allowing them to actively participate and engage with the narrative. Instead of simply stating information, you show the reader what is happening, enabling them to experience it for themselves.

The power of “show, don’t tell” lies in its ability to evoke emotions and create a deeper connection between readers and your story. By immersing readers in the world you’ve created, you tap into their own memories and experiences, evoking a strong emotional response. This emotional engagement makes your story more memorable and impactful.

The Role of Descriptive Language

Descriptive language plays a crucial role in “show, don’t tell” writing. By using powerful adjectives, vibrant metaphors, and engaging similes, you can paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. This allows them to visualize the setting, characters, and events, making the story come alive.

“The sun dipped below the horizon, casting a warm, golden glow over the serene lake. The gentle breeze whispered through the trees, rustling the leaves as a flock of birds soared across the sky. Sarah’s heart raced with excitement as she stepped onto the old, creaky dock and took in the breathtaking view before her.”

In this example, the descriptive language creates a sensory experience, transporting the reader to the tranquil lakeside setting and immersing them in the character’s emotions.

Active Reader Participation

One of the key benefits of “show, don’t tell” writing is that it actively involves the reader in the storytelling process. Instead of simply being passive recipients of information, readers become active participants, using their imagination and interpretation skills to make sense of the story.

By providing enough detail for readers to form their own mental images, you allow them to bring their own perspectives and experiences to the narrative. This creates a more personal and engaging reading experience, as each reader connects with the story in their own unique way.

Enhancing the Reading Experience

When readers are engaged and empowered through “show, don’t tell” writing, their overall reading experience is greatly enhanced. They become emotionally invested in the characters and their journey, eagerly turning the pages to discover what happens next.

The reader’s active participation also cultivates a deeper connection with the story, leading to a more profound impact. They are more likely to remember the events, themes, and messages conveyed in your novel long after they have finished reading it.

In summary, “show, don’t tell” writing empowers the reader by allowing them to actively participate in the story, engage their senses and emotions, and create their own interpretations. By utilizing descriptive language and fostering reader involvement, you can offer a richer and more memorable reading experience.

Stay tuned for the next section where we explore why “show, don’t tell” writing separates creative writing from other types of writing.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Separates Creative Writing from Other Types of Writing

Unlike most types of writing that focus on delivering information and making statements, creative writing, particularly the use of “show, don’t tell,” is exploratory, world-building, and inventive. It invites readers into an immersive world of experiences and enables them to engage their own imagination and interpretation. This distinction sets creative writing apart from other forms of writing.

Where other types of writing strive to transmit facts and convey messages, creative writing aims to transport readers into a rich tapestry of emotions and sensations. By employing the “show, don’t tell” technique, writers create vivid scenes that capture the essence of a story.

Through descriptive language, dialogue, and detailed imagery, creative writers set the stage for readers to feel as if they are present within the story. The reader becomes an active participant, using their imagination to visualize the characters, settings, and events.

The use of sensory details and showing emotions through actions and reactions brings life and authenticity to the narrative. This immersive experience allows the reader to form their own connections and interpretations, fostering a deeper engagement with the story.

While other types of writing may prioritize efficiency and succinctness, creative writing emphasizes the power of imagination and the art of storytelling. By captivating readers through the senses and emotions, creative writers can transport them to different worlds, evoke empathy, and spark introspection.

“The world of creative writing is a boundless universe where words paint pictures, and readers become co-creators of their own reality.”

The Importance of Immersion

In creative writing, immersion is key. By immersing readers in vivid descriptions and engaging them in experiences, writers can evoke powerful emotions and ignite their imagination.

Through the use of sensory details, writers allow readers to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the world they have created. By appealing to the senses, writers can transport readers to different places, time periods, and even fantastical realms.

Moreover, the process of immersing readers in a narrative taps into their natural inclination for storytelling. It allows them to see the world through various perspectives, fostering empathy and understanding for different characters and situations.

Ultimately, creative writing creates a unique connection between the writer and the reader. The writer becomes a guide, leading the reader on a journey of discovery, while the reader becomes an active participant, shaping their own understanding of the story.

The Power of Interpretation

One of the distinctive aspects of creative writing lies in its ability to stimulate interpretation and personal meaning-making. Unlike other types of writing that may present a single perspective or message, creative writing allows readers to interpret the story based on their own experiences, beliefs, and emotions.

By leaving room for interpretation, creative writing invites readers to actively engage with the text and draw their own conclusions. This makes the reading experience more personal and meaningful, as readers find connections between the story and their own lives.

Through character development, symbolism, and subtext, writers can craft narratives that resonate with readers on a deeper level. The open-ended nature of creative writing allows for diverse interpretations, sparking discussions and fostering a sense of community among readers.

Should I Use “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing All the Time?

While incorporating “show, don’t tell” writing techniques can significantly enhance your storytelling, it’s important to recognize that this approach may not be suitable for every piece of writing. Achieving a balance between “show” and “tell” writing is crucial to effectively convey information and maintain the flow of your narrative. Certain situations and types of writing may call for a more direct or summarized approach. By understanding when each method is appropriate, you can make informed choices about when to implement “show, don’t tell” techniques.

For example, in fast-paced action scenes, concise and straightforward statements can help maintain the intensity and momentum of the story. On the other hand, in emotional or reflective moments, using descriptive language and vivid imagery can immerse readers in the character’s experience.

It’s all about finding the right balance for your story and purpose.

By carefully considering the specific needs of each scene or section, you can determine whether to emphasize “show” or “tell” elements. Remember, the ultimate goal is to engage and captivate your readers while effectively conveying the necessary information.

How to Balance “Show” and “Tell” in Your Writing

Achieving a balance between “show” and “tell” is essential in creating a compelling and immersive novel. By mastering this delicate balance, you can engage your readers’ senses and emotions while still providing necessary information. Here are some tips and strategies to help you strike the right equilibrium:

Foster Curiosity

Curiosity is the driving force behind captivating storytelling. Encourage your own curiosity by exploring different perspectives, conducting research, and seeking inspiration from various sources. By embracing curiosity, you can create unique and engaging experiences for your readers.

Craft with Care

Mastery of the technical skills and techniques of novel writing is crucial for effectively conveying experiences to your readers. Pay attention to elements such as character development, dialogue, setting, and pacing. Experiment with different literary devices to enhance your storytelling and create a rich tapestry of experiences.

Embrace Confidence

Confidence in your writing is essential for making intentional choices and taking risks. Trust your instincts and believe in your ability to create engaging narratives. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and challenge conventional storytelling norms. Confidence will empower you to shape your story with purpose and authenticity.


Show, don’t tell, but don’t forget to tell when necessary. Finding the right balance between “show” and “tell” is an art that requires practice and experimentation.

To help you visualize the importance of balance in action, here’s an illustration:

  • She scanned the room, her heart racing, searching for any sign of the intruder.
  • She felt scared and anxious as she looked around the room for the intruder.
  • The sea breeze enveloped him, carrying the faint scent of salt and adventure.
  • He stood by the ocean, feeling a sense of adventure in the air.
  • The old book fell open, revealing faded pages filled with stories of love and loss.
  • The book was old, and its pages were filled with stories of love and loss.

Remember to experiment and trust your instincts while aiming for a balance that enhances the overall impact of your novel.

By balancing “show” and “tell” in your writing, you can create a captivating narrative that engages readers and transports them into the world you’ve created. Let curiosity, craft, and confidence guide your writing journey, and remember that practice and experimentation are key to finding the perfect equilibrium.

Tip #1 – The Role of Curiosity in “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing

Curiosity is a vital ingredient for successful “show, don’t tell” writing. It fuels writers to explore and experiment with different techniques to effectively convey experiences to readers. By cultivating a sense of curiosity, writers can develop a deeper understanding of their subjects, resulting in more engaging and immersive writing.

“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.” – Leo Burnett

When writers approach their subject matter with curiosity, they open themselves up to new perspectives and ideas. This mindset allows them to uncover unique angles and details that enhance their storytelling. By delving deeper into their characters, settings, and emotions, writers can create a rich tapestry of experiences for their readers.

Through curiosity, writers can also challenge themselves to think beyond the obvious and dive into the complexities of their narrative. By asking “what if” and exploring different scenarios, writers can uncover hidden layers and nuance that make their writing more compelling.

Cultivating curiosity can be done through various means:

  1. Research: Dive into the subject matter of your story, whether it’s a historical event, a cultural tradition, or a scientific concept. Immerse yourself in books, articles, and documentaries, allowing your curiosity to drive your exploration.
  2. Observation: Observe people, places, and things around you. Pay attention to the details that evoke curiosity and spark your imagination. Take notes on intriguing interactions, unique habits, and captivating environments.
  3. Questioning: Ask yourself thought-provoking questions about your characters, their motivations, and the world you’re creating. Challenge your assumptions and push the boundaries of your story, prompting yourself to go deeper and explore new angles.

By embracing curiosity in your writing process, you can unlock a world of possibilities and create captivating narratives that resonate with your readers.

Exercise: The Curiosity Journal

Start a curiosity journal to record your observations, questions, and research findings. Use it as a space to spark ideas, brainstorm unique details, and explore the depths of your story. Allow curiosity to guide your writing and witness how it enhances your “show, don’t tell” skills.

Benefits of Cultivating Curiosity in WritingWays to Cultivate Curiosity
  • Enhances the level of detail and immersion in your writing
  • Brings freshness and originality to your storytelling
  • Invigorates your own interest and passion for the subject matter
  • Engages readers’ curiosity and invites them to delve deeper into the story
  • Allows for exploration of different angles and perspectives
  • Researching extensively on the subject matter
  • Observing people, places, and objects with a keen eye
  • Questioning assumptions and exploring new angles
  • Embracing curiosity as an innate part of the writing process
  • Keeping a curiosity journal to record observations and ideas

Tip #2 – Use Dialogue to Show Character

Dialogue is a powerful tool for novel writers, offering a unique opportunity to showcase character traits and create a dynamic narrative. Through the words and interactions of your characters, readers can gain insights into their personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. Effective use of dialogue can truly bring your characters to life and add depth to your storytelling.

When crafting dialogue, it’s important to consider how each character speaks and what their unique voice sounds like. This can be influenced by their age, background, education, or even their emotional state. By capturing the distinct mannerisms, speech patterns, and vocabulary of your characters, you can make them more relatable and believable to your readers.

Additionally, dialogue provides an excellent opportunity to reveal information indirectly. Instead of explicitly stating a character’s thoughts or feelings, you can evoke them through their words and interactions with others. This allows readers to engage more actively with the story, drawing their own conclusions and participating in the narrative.

Here’s an example:

“I can’t believe you forgot my birthday,” Sarah said, her voice quivering with disappointment. “After all the years we’ve been friends, I thought you knew me better than that.”

In this short dialogue snippet, we can gather that Sarah values her friendship and has an expectation of being understood by her friend. The use of dialogue here not only conveys Sarah’s emotions but also reveals the depth of their relationship.

When using dialogue to show character, it’s important to strike a balance. Avoid excessive dialogue that slows down the pace of your story or feels unnatural. Remember, the ultimate goal is to create authentic and engaging interactions that advance the plot and deepen the readers’ understanding of your characters.

By harnessing the power of dialogue, you can breathe life into your characters and enhance the overall impact of your writing. Experiment with different voices, explore the nuances of conversations, and let your characters speak for themselves. Your readers will thank you for it.

Tip #3 – If in Doubt, Always Describe Action

When writing a novel, describing action is a powerful technique that helps evoke the setting, context, and atmosphere of a scene without slowing down the narrative. Instead of providing lengthy descriptions of the setting, incorporating action allows readers to visualize and experience the scene along with the characters.

By focusing on meaningful actions, novel writers can maintain the momentum of the story while still providing important details. Action-oriented descriptions not only engage readers but also enable them to immerse themselves in the story, making it more interactive and compelling.

Describing actions helps create a sense of movement and immediacy, keeping readers engaged and eager to know what happens next. It enables them to experience the story from the characters’ perspectives and feel a sense of connection.

For example:

“With a swift flick of her wrist, Emma unsheathed her sword, ready to face the oncoming enemy. Her heart pounded against her chest as she stepped forward, each footstep echoing in the eerie silence of the dark forest.”

In this example, the writer effectively uses action-oriented descriptions to set the scene and convey the character’s emotions. By focusing on the character unsheathing her sword and stepping forward, the reader can visualize the tense moment and get a sense of the atmosphere in the dark forest.

When in doubt, always opt for describing action in your writing. It adds excitement, depth, and realism to your scenes, making the reading experience more immersive and engaging.

Benefits of Describing Action in Novel Writing:

  • Creates an immersive reading experience
  • Elicits emotions and engages readers
  • Sets the scene and atmosphere without lengthy descriptions
  • Maintains the momentum of the story
  • Allows readers to visualize and experience the scene along with the characters

Tip #4 – Use Strong Details, but Don’t Overdo It

In “show, don’t tell” writing, strong and vivid details play a crucial role in immersing the reader in the story. By carefully selecting the right details, you can create a rich and engaging experience. However, it’s important to strike a balance and avoid overwhelming the reader with excessive embellishments.

When incorporating details into your writing, consider their relevance and impact on the overall narrative. Each detail should serve a purpose, whether it’s setting the scene, revealing a character’s emotions, or adding depth to the story. Rather than flooding your writing with an abundance of details, focus on using them strategically to enhance the reader’s experience.

For example:

The moon hung low in the inky sky, casting an ethereal glow over the deserted city streets. The scent of smoky embers lingered, hinting at the chaos that had unfolded hours earlier. Sally shivered, her trembling fingers clutching the torn photograph of her missing sister. She traced the faded ink with her gaze, the memories flooding back, igniting a flicker of hope in her heart.

In this extract, the details such as the moon, the deserted streets, and the torn photograph create a vivid image in the reader’s mind. They provide essential information, establish the atmosphere, and add emotional depth to Sally’s character. By carefully choosing which details to include, you can make your writing more powerful and immersive.

Remember, the goal is to engage the reader and allow them to visualize and experience the story alongside the characters. By using strong, impactful details in moderation, you can strike the perfect balance and bring your writing to life.

Examples of Effective Use of Details in “Show, Don’t Tell” Writing

A single tear trickled down her cheek.Conveys the character’s emotions and vulnerability.
The pungent aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air.Invokes the sense of smell, creating a sensory experience for the reader.
The once vibrant city now lay in ruins, its buildings reduced to rubble.Creates a visual image of destruction, emphasizing the devastation.
He clenched his fists, his knuckles turning white.Reveals the character’s anger and tension.

By using strong details effectively, you can elevate your writing and captivate your readers. Choose your details wisely, and let them enhance the storytelling experience.


Mastering the art of “show, don’t tell” in your writing is essential for captivating storytelling and engaging readers on a deeper level. By creating immersive experiences, effectively using dialogue, describing action vividly, and incorporating strong details, writers can bring their stories to life and make a lasting impact on their audience.

Practice and experimentation are key in honing this essential writing skill. By continuously refining your ability to balance “show” and “tell,” you can craft narratives that resonate with readers and leave them craving for more.

So, whether you’re a budding novelist or a seasoned writer, remember the power of “show, don’t tell.” Embrace the curiosity that drives your creativity, harness the strength of well-crafted dialogue, bring your scenes to life through vivid action, and carefully choose impactful details. By following these novel writing tips, you’ll be on your way to captivating readers and crafting stories that leave a lasting impression.


What is "show, don’t tell" writing?

“Show, don’t tell” writing involves transmitting experiences to the reader instead of simply stating information. It is achieved through the use of vivid imagery, descriptive verbs, and immersive details.

Why does "show, don’t tell" writing empower the reader?

When done properly, “show, don’t tell” writing creates experiences in the reader, engaging their senses, emotions, and memories. It allows readers to actively participate in the story and interpret the writing in their own ways.

How is "show, don’t tell" writing different from other types of writing?

“Show, don’t tell” writing separates creative writing from other forms by its emphasis on exploration, world-building, and imagination. It invites readers into an immersive world of experiences and allows them to engage their own interpretation.

Should I use "show, don’t tell" writing exclusively?

While “show, don’t tell” is a valuable technique, there is a need for a balance between “show” and “tell” writing. Some situations and types of writing may call for more summary or direct statements.

How can I balance "show" and "tell" in my writing?

Achieving the right balance between “show” and “tell” requires curiosity, craft, and confidence. Curiosity fuels exploration, craft involves mastering technical skills, and confidence allows for intentional choices in your writing.

What role does curiosity play in "show, don’t tell" writing?

Curiosity plays a vital role by encouraging writers to explore and experiment with different ways of conveying experiences. It leads to a deeper understanding of subjects and more engaging writing.

How can dialogue enhance my writing?

Dialogue is a powerful tool for showing character traits and creating a dynamic narrative. Through character interactions, readers gain insights into personalities, backgrounds, and motivations.

How does describing action contribute to "show, don’t tell" writing?

Describing action effectively evokes the setting, context, and atmosphere without slowing down the narrative. It allows readers to visualize and experience the scene along with the characters, maintaining the story’s momentum.

How can I use strong details without overwhelming the reader?

In “show, don’t tell” writing, striking a balance with strong details is essential. Choose relevant and impactful details that enhance the reader’s experience and bring the writing to life without overwhelming them.

How can mastering "show, don’t tell" elevate my storytelling?

Mastering “show, don’t tell” can significantly elevate your storytelling by creating immersive experiences, bringing characters to life through dialogue, describing action, and incorporating strong details.

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