Step6d: How to Use ‘Show Don’t Tell’ in Story Writing

What is show don’t tell in story writing?

“Show don’t tell” is a fundamental principle in storytelling that encourages writers to use descriptive language, actions, dialogue and scenes to reveal information to the reader, rather than simply telling them outright. It emphasizes the importance of engaging the reader’s senses and imagination, allowing them to experience the story firsthand rather than being told what to think or feel.

Here’s a breakdown of what “show don’t tell” means:

  1. Show: Instead of explicitly stating information or emotions, show them through vivid descriptions, actions, and sensory details. Show characters interacting with their environment, experiencing emotions, and responding to events in a way that allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

  2. Don’t Tell: Avoid telling the reader what to think, feel, or believe directly. Instead of stating facts or summarizing events, allow the story to unfold naturally through scenes and dialogue. Trust the reader to infer meaning from the details and experiences presented in the narrative.

For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • Telling: “Samantha was nervous about her job interview.”

  • Showing: “Samantha’s palms sweated as she smoothed her wrinkled blouse for the tenth time. Her heart raced like a runaway train, and she struggled to control the tremble in her voice as she rehearsed her answers in the mirror.”

In the first example, the writer tells the reader that Samantha is nervous. In the second example, the writer shows Samantha’s nervousness through her physical reactions and behavior, allowing the reader to experience her anxiety firsthand.

By employing the “show don’t tell” technique, writers can create more immersive and engaging narratives that draw readers into the story world and allow them to experience the characters and events on a deeper level. It’s about trusting the reader to interpret and engage with the story, rather than spoon-feeding them information or emotions.

Best examples of show don’t tell in Christian literature

In Christian literature, this technique is often used to convey spiritual truths, moral lessons, and the inner workings of faith in a vivid and engaging manner.

Here are some examples of how “show don’t tell” is effectively utilized in Christian literature:

  1. “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan: This allegorical novel follows the journey of Christian as he travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Through vivid descriptions of Christian’s encounters with various characters, obstacles, and landmarks along his pilgrimage, Bunyan illustrates profound spiritual truths and moral lessons. For example, instead of telling readers explicitly about the dangers of sin, Bunyan shows the consequences of sin through the character of Christian as he struggles with temptations and faces the consequences of his actions.

  2. “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis: In this retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Lewis explores themes of love, faith, and redemption. Through the experiences of the main character, Orual, and her interactions with others, including the gods, Lewis reveals profound insights into the human condition and the nature of divine love. Rather than explicitly stating theological concepts, Lewis uses the characters’ actions, dialogue, and relationships to convey deeper spiritual truths.

  3. “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom: This memoir recounts ten Boom’s experiences during the Holocaust, including her time in a concentration camp for hiding Jews. Through vivid descriptions of the horrors of war, the resilience of the human spirit, and the power of forgiveness, ten Boom demonstrates the transformative impact of faith in the face of adversity. Rather than telling readers about the importance of forgiveness, ten Boom shows its profound effects through her own actions and experiences.

  4. “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers: In this historical romance novel set in the American West, Rivers explores themes of love, redemption, and grace. Through the characters’ interactions and experiences, including the protagonist’s journey from brokenness to healing, Rivers illustrates the transformative power of God’s unconditional love. Instead of explicitly stating theological truths, Rivers shows them through the characters’ relationships, emotions, and growth throughout the story.

  5. “The Shack” by William P. Young: In this novel, Young explores questions of faith, suffering, and the nature of God through the experiences of the main character, Mackenzie Phillips. Through Mackenzie’s encounters with the Trinity personified as characters in the story, Young shows readers different aspects of God’s character and the complexities of human emotions and beliefs. Rather than telling readers what to believe, Young invites them to journey alongside Mackenzie as he wrestles with his faith and experiences profound encounters with God.

These examples demonstrate how “show don’t tell” can be effectively employed in Christian literature to convey spiritual truths, moral lessons, and the complexities of faith in a compelling and immersive manner. Through vivid descriptions, authentic dialogue, and relatable characters, authors can engage readers in meaningful exploration of Christian themes and ideas.

Training by: Dr. Muthoni Mercy Omukhango

Publisher in Africa | National Director @CLC Kenya |Authors’ Manager @African Christian Authors Book Award-ACABA | Marketplace Minister | Patron at CLC Kids and Teens | Advancing God’s Kingdom through literature.

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