“Show, don’t tell.” The magical three words than can literally transform your writing from mildly interesting to engaging. Show, don’t tell, means to show us what is happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader what is going on. By showing, your reader can visualize the scene easier, and they feel like an active participant.

Show, don’t Tell

James was trying to be serious, but Sara was too happy to hear him.

Here, the basic point is given, with simple emotions.

James scowled at Sara, and she laughed and danced around him.

Same emotions, but the reader is shown how the characters feel through their actions. Also another way to show instead of tell is when describing someone. No one in their right mind will look at someone and describe their emotions. Unless that’s how they act, then have them say it, which is still showing.

Victor wore a long, black cloak, with a silver fastening.

Simple description, we see a mental image of the man in the cloak with silver fastenings.

Victor unhooked the silver fastenings from his long black coat, letting it fall to the ground.

Same mental image, but shown through action. You can describe your characters the same way you did before, but without stopping the flow of the scene. By showing what is going on and describing the scene in the action, you’ll avoid large info dumps and keep the flow of the story.

When showing instead of telling, you can have more subtlety and variety in the actions of your characters, and making them unique.

She had an idea.


She looked up suddenly, and her face brightened.

She jumped up, and shouted, “Yes!”

We can see that the last two actions are done by different people, yet they still convey the same actions.

Purple Prose

Purple prose is that nasty, icky feeling when you start showing too much. In fact, purple prose does the exact opposite of what regular showing does, purple prose slows down the reader, while showing keeps normally things moving nicely. I’ll use Eldest as a reference here.

As they passed between the trees, the canopy overhead plunged them into velvet darkness, except where fragments of moonlight gleamed through chinks in the shell of overlapping leaves.

It grew dark as they entered the forest, and the moonlight shone through the leaves overhead.

Same image given, but the second version is nearly half as long. I didn’t use the words velvet, canopy, fragments, chinks, shell, or overlapping. Are these words necessary? No. They don’t have anything to do with the plot of the story, and they don’t add anything to the existing scene. But, nevertheless, they are there, and it takes a while to read through the sentence. Worse, it forces the reader to stop and think, piecing together the image from all the unnecessary adjectives thrown in. Someone once said, ‘words should be invisible’, meaning the reader should understand them the second his or her eyes examine them, and move on.

Now, this isn’t saying describing things or simply telling a quick scene shouldn’t be used at all. When setting a scene, be sure to get all the important stuff in for character, plot, and whatever else. If it’s unimportant, leave it out. Simple. When telling, you’ll need a fine balance. A quick burst of telling here or there won’t hurt anyone, and in certain situations it’s unavoidable. But your reader would like to be included in the shenanigans of your tale most of the time.


  1. Snow White Queen on 22 October 2008, 23:59 said:

    nice article…i especially liked the eldest reference.

    i always used to just skim the books when i read them…i knew most of the time i wasn’t missing anything important anyways.

  2. Aquanaut on 23 October 2008, 00:18 said:

    Great. :D

    The best “Show, don’t tell” article I ever read for years. It simple and straight foward — Just the way I like for me understanding the lesson.

    Did you know what I would love to read ? An article about outlines.

  3. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 00:18 said:

    there’s one on this website…i think it’s under the writing section.

  4. Addie on 23 October 2008, 00:26 said:

    “Words should be invisible.” That’s a wonderful quote! I always hate it when the means for telling (or, more appropriately, showing) a story start getting in the way.

  5. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 00:26 said:

    Here is the article

    Good article. Although I urge some caution. See. There are some fine balance issues to consider. And there isn’t really anything wrong with straight up description where appropriate. Describing everything through action is a bit silly. I think it is most useful when describing the main character in a first person story, because it lets you avoid the dreaded mirror scene.

  6. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 00:29 said:

    the dreaded mirror scene?

  7. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 00:37 said:

    Where the character examines himself in the mirror, to give an excuse to describe the character.

  8. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 00:39 said:


    i’ve actually read that in a lot of books, (twilight comes to mind)and it does seem kind of cheesy and unoriginal…

  9. Ophelia on 26 October 2008, 02:26 said:

    I’ve a bone to pick for your first example – the first quote given tells the reader with certainty what is going on, despite its blandness, but the second is ambiguous. It doesn’t tell us why Sara is laughing and dancing around him: is she mocking him? Ignoring him? Playing her own little game? It certainly sounds like she’s circling him, at least, but we don’t know <i>why</i> she is acting like this.

  10. Virgil on 26 October 2008, 09:51 said:

    Well sure, Ophelia. But I’d have to give you an entire paragraph of information so you could put that sentence in context.

  11. JayC on 1 May 2011, 19:02 said:

    Is purple prose okay to use ocassionally while writing?
    It shouldn’t be that bad if used when describing 3-4 scenic locations.

  12. Nate Winchester on 3 May 2011, 09:36 said:

    @JayC – My opinion is that it’s always easier to cut than to add. So throw in purple prose all you want – but then get a good editor that can help you trim down to more manageable levels.