How to Show and Not Tell in Writing Fiction


It's easier for readers to engage in your fictional story when you show what's happening, rather than spelling out the information word for word. Create powerful visual images, so readers can use their imagination to grasp important details about the characters, mood, plot and setting. Include descriptive adjectives, action verbs and concise dialogue, so you don't get bogged down with wordy phrases and sentences. Make sure every word adds to the story to create interest and suspense.

Describe Important Details

  • Describe important details using colorful adjectives, strong action verbs and direct dialogue. Avoid the passive voice and steer clear of "helping" and "being" verbs whenever possible. Use your senses to develop intimate details about the setting, tone and characters. For example, say, "Leah's lips trembled and tears welled in the corner of her eyes," rather than "Leah felt sad." Or, "Leave my drums alone. You sound like a circus act," rather than "Andy was frustrated with his little sister."

Use Emotional Language

  • Incorporate emotional language into your story, character development and dialogue. "If you want to engage the reader’s heart, mind, and imagination, show vivid details that generate the emotions you want to express," suggests Dennis Jerz, an associate professor of English at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania. The goal is to help readers feel the same emotions the characters experience. For example, you might write, "Josie's mind relaxed like a series of calm, seductive waves when Peter touched her hand," or "Heat covered her like a warm blanket as the fire cast rays of hope on the stone wall."

Avoid Vague Terms

  • Don't use generic words that convey little meaning or depth, such as very, nice, good, bad, fine, big or old. These words don't offer enough information about your characters or setting to build anticipation, excitement or fear. For example, "Her curly blond hair hung just below her toothy smile" is more descriptive than "The nice girl had a good smile." Similarly, "The monstrous red barn hovered over the algae-ridden pond," offers more specific information than "The big barn stood by the old pond."

Create Vivid Pictures

  • Choose words selectively, so they accurately portray characters and events. Your choice of words, analogies, illustrations and examples help readers draw the conclusions you intend, according to Jerz. Imagine the setting, time period, characters, themes, conflicts and resolution before you start writing. How does back story affect your characters' reactions? Why do characters struggle through their journeys? For example, if your story is about a teenager's hardships during the Civil War, paint a vivid visual picture of the war-torn towns, bloody battlefields and resulting family strife. If your novel is about a hiker's survival in the Alaskan wilderness, develop a strong image of the cold, icy terrain and the hiker's lonely, fearful nights.


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