Don’t Describe Your Characters–Show Them!

The old adage “Show your story rather than tell it!” is as true as ever. It is one technique that will always improve your writing. I admit that there is some great writing that makes a precedent for “tell,” but as a rule “show” is more effective. Consider this.

1. Your pen is your movie camera. In a film, a director ( that’s you!) doesn’t have an actor go on screen to tell the audience that someone is angry. Instead, he shows the character in a scene where anger is in action.

In writing, this means you do not say, “Naomi was angry.” You show the action (create a movie picture) that makes it clear: picking up a dish from the drying rack, Naomi throws it across the room; it crashes against the door Henry has just walked through. You may choose to include words (dialog) (“And don’t you ever say that to me again!”) that underscore the action. But the words should not replace the action.

Your writing itself must show as much feeling as there was in life. You don’t need to tell the reader that the character was angry or scared if you depict an action that successfully shows that emotion. In fact, it takes away from the pleasure the reader has in interpreting and understanding your story for herself when you tell too much.

2) To understand your story, the reader shouldn’t have to have any special info that is not “in the eye of the camera.” You must challenge yourself to include everything the reader needs to know in order to understand what you want him to understand (you are the director!). “Show don’t tell” goes a step further when you realize you must also exclude anything in your story that has not been shown in a scene where action makes the info clear.

Showing rather than telling is fairly new to writing. In most writing prior to the twentieth century, plenty of information is conveyed by a character who tells what has happened offstage: Macbeth, for example, commits his famous murder offstage. But movies have been in our culture for nearly one hundred years now. They have changed the way we expect to experience a story on the page as well as on the screen.

Today, we are habituated to observe actions that earlier storytellers had to describe through a narrator. Shakespeare was forced to tell not show: his stage was small and the cost and complication of making scene changes was prohibitive. Today’s movie director not only wants to and can portray the death of the Duncan but must do so because of the expectations of the audience. We won’t believe it in the same way if we are told rather than see it happen ourselves. The same is true of your life stories.

3) Showing is almost always more convincing than telling. In a film I saw recently, the hero meets a woman who seems more suitable for him than his wife – “seems” is crucial here – since we don’t ever see the hero and his new woman in a “real life” situation. We have, however, seen how he and his wife interact destructively. The movie shows us that his wife is not right for him-the scenes in which they don’t get along make it clear.

The hero leaves his wife for the other woman and a narrator tells us they live happily ever after. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – here was “tell” rather than “show!” It was a big flaw in the film. As an audience member I wanted to see how they well they got along, how infatuation could turn into an enduring relationship. As written, the ending fell flat. I didn’t believe what I was told like I believed what I could see myself. Your readers will insist on the same standard.

Look at your writing with the tip “show don’t tell” in mind. Find opportunities to convert your stories from telling to showing by using the active components of scene building: dialog, action, and setting. Let the reader experience your stories for herself by giving her the scenes she needs to understand.

Good luck writing!


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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2 Responses to Don’t Describe Your Characters–Show Them!

  1. Joyce Fishman says:

    Hi Dennis,
    I enjoyed your teleseminar on building your business, and it was tremendously helpful in helping me refine a business plan, even though my plan is a slow one due to other responsibilities. I like the idea of just publishing a small part of my memoire and bind it, so I have something to give me authenticity. I have also started to rewrite the letter to Brenda which I sent to you, filling out scenes and fleshing out more of story, especially the show not tell aspect. Thanks for all your help. I’m looking forward to the class in Sept, and I will definately benefit from the first part of memoire writing class. I would also like to register for the class Aug 17 on Character development.
    Thaks again,
    Joyce Fishman I have 2 e-mails G-mail, and

  2. PatriciaD says:

    Dennis, I don’t know if you remember, but I tried to attend the seminar and couldn’t get through. I have not seen, and it’s probably me, but I haven’t seen the recording yet. Is it available or will it be available soon? I’d REALLY like to hear what I missed.

    In addition to that I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your mini lessons or posts. Sure do wish I’d heard some of that back in the dark ages…I mean when I was in school…hahaha!! THANK YOU!!

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