“Show don’t tell” is one of the most popular adages of creative writing advice, and it isn’t just empty words. Here’s how it works and why sticking to it will improve your writing.

When describing characters, showing comes out as indirect characterization. This means that rather than saying “Daisy is brilliant,” I might suggest her intelligence by showing other characters reacting to her and through the way that she understands and interacts with the environment. She might always come to a correct answer before anyone else or might pick up new skills quickly. Others might comment on how sharp she is and how pissed they are that she keeps ruining the grade curve.

Indirect characterization is great for two reasons:

First, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. If the reader decides for themselves that Daisy is brilliant, they’re more likely to believe it. They can also have a more nuanced opinion of her intelligence (perhaps she’s an insufferable genius, or she’s excellent at trivia but has no spatial reasoning), and concrete details to support this opinion.

Second, avoids informed attributes. If I keep going on about how brilliant Daisy is but she never does anything particularly intelligent, that undermines the impression that I’m trying to give. If she consistently makes poor decisions and I continue to insist that she’s brilliant, the reader’s faith in the narration is going to be seriously shaken.

This applies to almost all personality attributes, and any abstract qualities that you might be tempted to assign to your characters: mean, kind, beautiful, ugly, free spirited, good, evil, etc.

It also can be applied to make physical attributes more effective. If a character’s tall, it’s one thing to say so or—please don’t ever do this—give their height in inches. We can all picture a tall person. But if they need to stoop to get through doorways, hit their head on things, and never have enough leg space in the car, that sends a much stronger message.

When “show don’t tell” is expanded to setting and plot, the same principals apply. It means more specific, concrete images and less abstract judgments. It also means following actions through and accounting for how the characters interact with the setting. If Daisy trips on her way to her locker, I can show this action by describing how she trips, what happens when she goes down (her books scatter, all the colored gel pens fly out of her backpack, she crashes into Sandra), and how everyone around her reacts. Not only does this give the reader a clearer view of what’s going on, but it also makes your writing more compelling because people naturally latch on to concrete details.

Writing like a boss: Telling isn’t always bad. In fact, there are a couple of cases in which it’s preferable:

  • Summary narration: There are times when you need to describe something in brief. If nothing important happens while Daisy drives home from school, you don’t need to show the drive home. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.
  • Conservation of detail: Likewise, some actions that occur in a scene don’t warrant that much description. A detailed description of a character cracking their knuckles during an important conversation might distract from the dialogue. The amount of description given to any object, character, or action in a story should be proportional to its importance.
  • Intentional dissonance: Readers expect direct and indirect characterization to align. Having these things fall out of alignment without realizing it is often bad writing. Doing this on purpose, however, can yield incredibly interesting results.
  • In dialogue: A lot of telling involves judgments. It’s weird for a third person narrator to insist that a character is brilliant because the narrator is providing an opinion. However, if it’s coming out of a character’s mouth, it’s fair game.