Show don’t tell – its subtle power

You are probably aware of the writing mantra: show don’t tell.

There are loads of really helpful posts about it, often illustrated by the pitch-perfect Chekov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” so I won’t go too deeply into the concept here.

What I do want to explore is the subtle power of show don’t tell. It’s more than just using dialogue and action. It can be as simple as getting the verb to do the work of an adjective:

The sliding glass doors closed behind me.

The glass doors slid closed behind me.

And it can be powerful enough to show what a person or relationship is like without describing them. Let me show  you a couple of superb examples.

This first one, from Alan Hollinghurst’s Man-Booker winner, The Line of Beauty.

The housekeeper came in early each morning, to prepare the day’s meals, and Gerald’s secretary, with sunglasses on the top of her head, looked in to deal with the imposing volume of post.


Showing the secretary’s sunglasses on top of her head gives an instant picture of what she’s like. And it’s so economical.

The second is from another Man-Booker winning author, Ann Enright. This is from The Green Road, (one of my all-time favourite books).


The kitchen floor tiles were new and she said to Hugh they were too shiny and too hard so everything would smash as soon as touch them, but Hugh wanted a kitchen that looked like an operating theatre or a butcher’s shop, with steel and concrete and metal hooks hanging off metal bars. In a tiny little semi-detached. Hugh wanted a man kitchen. A serial murderer’s kitchen, with a row of knives pinned to a magnetic strip along the wall. Hugh cooked twice a year, that was the height of it.

On the surface she’s describing the kitchen, but what she’s really doing is showing us not only what Hugh is like, but also how his relationship works with Hanna, the protagonist.

Ann Enright and Alan Hollinghurst have spent years honing their craft and they have the faith in their writing, and in their readers, to do more with less. But like you, they had to start somewhere.

Giving your reader space to make their own connections takes practice. If this is new to you, perhaps your first step could be to look out for similar subtle examples of showing in the books you read. (Take a snap on your phone and build yourself a collection.) As you get a feel for it, you could review a current draft to see where there are opportunities for showing rather than telling. With practice, you will start find yourself making those choices as you write.

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If you want to read more about giving your reader space, here’s an earlier post.


Lu Sexton

Hello, I’m Lu Sexton. I’m an editor and writing coach. I’ve been working with writers like you since 2009 and I love it. My mission is to help you bring out the best in your writing and get you one step closer to being published.

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Tommy Cotton – author

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It started with a structural edit (manuscript assessment) where Lu examined the vital elements of the novel like tone, characters and pacing. She delved deep and the report helped immensely in writing the next draft, which was a massive improvement from where it had started.

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