March 26

Fiction Writing Tips: Show vs. Tell


For beginning fiction authors, one of the most important—and hardest—techniques to master is how to show the story through action and dialogue rather than telling the story through internal thoughts and emotions. While the latter isn’t inherently bad or forbidden, we can engage our readers much more by pulling them into the story directly by showing them what’s going on rather than telling them about it. That gives them something they can see, imagine, and experience, which will inspire them to keep that book in their hands. And that’s exactly what we want to do with our fiction!

What does your opening scene look like?

When I’m editing a novel, this is one of the first things I look for—an engaging hook for the story. I look at that first sentence with a critical yet encouraging eye to see how we can translate it into something the novel’s readers can experience. With an opening scene, you only have so much time to grab onto your reader and pull them into the world of your story. And the sooner you can do that, the better.

Fiction Tip #1—If your first sentence is a line of dialogue, what can you add before that dialogue to make the opening scene more exciting?

How can you translate internal emotion into descriptive action?

Out in the real world, when we are angry, we don’t come out and say, “Boy, am I angry!” Not right away, anyway. Our emotion first shows in our faces, body language, and actions. So, instead of coming out and saying how angry we are, our smiles will fade, our muscles may tense, and there might be a frown or a scowl on our face. Some people might even get angry enough to react by slapping, shoving another person away, or stomping off to be alone. Those actions speak loud and clear without them having to say a single word. And since we do these things in real life, your characters should also do them in your stories.

Fiction Tip #2—If you find yourself using too many adverbs, try removing the adverb and showing it directly through action or dialogue.

Does your writing engage your readers’ senses?

If you want your story to penetrate deep into your readers’ minds, try going beyond what can be seen or heard. Use your sense of touch, taste, and smell to make the scene feel more realistic. For instance, if you have a scene where a character is walking by a bakery, we all know what that smells like, but if you can describe it well, your readers will jump right into the world of your story. They will be right there with you walking past that bakery and smelling the freshly baked bread. Also, when a character is experiencing a particularly strong smell—whether pleasant or disgusting—it conjures up thoughts of how that might taste. In this way, our senses can have an extremely powerful effect on us.

Fiction Tip #3—Can you find any opportunities in your narrative to add taste, smell, or sense of touch?

Does your dialogue tell or show?

While dialogue can be a great tool to reveal the story to readers, sometimes it takes over to tell the reader what happened. With so much to tell, trying to get it all out in one paragraph of dialogue can feel like story vomit. For instance, “So, I know you and Drake have been trying to get pregnant for years with no luck whatsoever, and I’m sorry about that, but I have some news. I just found out I’m pregnant!” This is a lot of information to give out when something as simple as “I just found out I’m pregnant” will suffice. The other details you can show through the character’s behavior, so you don’t need to reveal absolutely everything in one line (or paragraph) of dialogue. 

Fiction Tip #4—If you find yourself continuously writing “said” or other elaborate dialogue tags, try removing them and substituting some action for the speaker.

What’s the best way to become an expert at showing in fiction?

In screenwriting, you are taught to write everything visually with minimal direction or emotion, and this works well when writing a film script because it is an art form that’s displayed on the screen rather than the page. You can use this as a powerful fiction writing technique by closing your eyes and inserting yourself into the scene. Now that you’re in the world of your story, look around and take note of what you see, what you hear, what you smell, etc. If you’re in a crowded area, what conversations can you overhear? If you’re in the middle of a fight or action scene, pay close attention to every move and sound you experience as a result of that scene. This works really well because if you can pull this technique off expertly, then your reader will be able to do the same thing when they’re reading your story.

Fiction Tip #5—If you’re challenged by writing a particular scene, imagine how the scene might look in a movie and start by describing all the important details you see on the screen.

If you’re currently working on writing a novel, what has been your biggest challenge so far? Comment below to connect with one of our fiction experts!


fiction, novel, writing

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  1. I loved the tip about closing your eyes and immersing yourself in your own story/scene. Thanks! I will be doing that as I continue to write.
    As far as my biggest challenge of writing my novel? It is my own mindset of being psyched out at how many more words it is to write than any of my published nonfiction books! Will I really be able to put that many words to paper with the novel that is in my head?

  2. My biggest weakness is my tendency to speak where I should describe. This was a good rebuke and guide for putting my focus back in the right spot for very gripping writing.

    One of the biggest challenges here, to show instead of tell, can make your writing so much stronger. I found that when I wrote a love story but didn’t include the word ‘love’ anywhere in showing or in telling, it made that story so much sharper and more powerful. I’m trying it with words like ‘revenge’ and ‘desperation,’ and the result is the same: sharper and better writing. Nothing, I feel, can take a writer from sounding like a beginner to looking like a pro.

    This advice is common, but it is common because it works! Again, way to point out a critical and overlooked aspect of writing!

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