Creative Writing


Show, Don't Tell (1)

Anton Chekhov

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." —Anton Chekhov

This quote by the famous author Anton Chekhov is often cited as the origin of the phrase, "Show, don't tell." It's a phrase you'll hear many times if you decide to become a writer. It's one of the golden rules of creative writing.

Before we go on, let's make sure you know what it means.

Show, don't tell.

Imagine that you are directing a movie. Your main character, Albert, is angry. How can you convey this information to your audience? You have two choices:

  1. A narrative voice-over. You show Albert walking down the street. In the background, a voice says: "Albert was angry that day."
  2. You show Albert walking down the street. His cheeks are flushed. He's muttering curses. He kicks a trash can and punches the air. "Damn it!" he says. "I'm going to kill that jerk!"

The first method is telling; the second is showing.

Most movies don't employ voice-overs, so movie directors must get good at showing. They know that the only way to show that a character is sad, or happy, or whatever, is to show the character doing or saying something that reveals these emotions. If the camera can't see it, the audience has no way of knowing it.

Writers, on the other hand, have a different set of tools, and telling the reader what a character is feeling is one of them. That's a fine and useful tool. But good writers don't rely too heavily on telling, because they know the power of showing—the power of creating mental images.

Compare the following:

Telling Showing

Jody was cold.

Jody pulled her collar up, tightened her scarf, shoved her hands deep into her pockets, and turned her face away from the biting wind.

Tasha was scared of the dark.

Tasha checked under the bed, twice, to make sure there weren't any monsters there. Then she asked her mother to leave the light on and leave the door open.

Tim loved Patty.

Tim got up an hour early every morning so that he could walk three miles to the bus stop where Patty caught the school bus.

Instructions for the Quiz

The quiz asks you questions like this:

Which writer does the better job of showing (instead of telling)?
  • Joe was tired.
  • Joe laid his head on the desk, allowing his eyes to close for a moment.

The answer is B.

If these kinds of questions give you trouble, ask yourself:

Can a camera see something called "tired"? No, so the answer can't be A.

Can you film Joe laying his head on the desk? Can you shoot a closeup of his eyes slowly closing? The answer is yes; therefore, the answer is B.