Show, Don’t Tell Worksheets to Level-Up Your Writing
If your greatest fear is writing a story that puts readers and publishers to sleep in the third paragraph, our “Show, Don’t Tell” worksheets can help.
They’re also helpful if you’re trying to minimize the number of times your critique partner says, “I just feel like you’re doing a lot of telling.”
It’s true: “show, don’t tell” is probably the most clichéd writing advice in the history of literary expression. But there’s a reason for this.
Storytelling is showing. That’s what makes it powerful.
Science has shown that, when we read about actions or sensory experiences, our brains react the same as they would if we were living those experiences. This may be why storytelling is such a powerful vehicle for empathy.
And it’s definitely a strong argument for writing scenes that bring a moment to life rather than just infodumping.
If you’ve been struggling to master the art of showing instead of telling, help is on the way. I’m about to walk you through the best methods for creating moments that put the reader in the heart of the action.
I’ve also got some handy-dandy “Show, Don’t Tell” worksheets you can download right now or snag at the end.
But first, let’s answer the question that might be plaguing you if you’re new to this classic writing tip.
What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Even Mean?
This is telling:
Bertrand went into the house. He was angry.
This is showing:
Bertrand thundered up the walk, throwing the front door open so violently the knob slammed against the drywall and left a small, cracked dimple.
The first version reads a bit like a report of the neighborhood news. I’m handing you some information and your reaction to that information is probably not much stronger than, “Okay, now I know that.”
The second version probably makes you feel something a little closer to, “Whoa, Bertrand! Maybe take a breath.”
This is because, when you show your reader what happened, you give them the opportunity to experience the moment for themselves. They’re witnessing the fury and wincing at the slamming door knob.
When you just tell them what happened, you keep the experience to yourself and give the reader your summary of events. It’s dry. It’s dull. Your reader feels no emotion.
This is why no one reads SparkNotes for pleasure.
But how do you know when you’re telling versus showing? And how do you get better at building an experience for your reader?
Your Show, Don’t Tell worksheets will help. So will these tips.
How to Show Instead of Tell
Writers (myself included) tend to fall into the telling trap when we’re trying to convey abstract information. For example, it happens a lot when we want to:
- Establish a mood or tone
- Clarify a character’s internal conflict
- Show a character’s emotion
- Reveal a theme
- Make the reader cry, laugh, shudder, or give us five stars on Goodreads
But the entire point of storytelling is to share ideas through demonstration. To take all the complex, abstract goop inside our hearts and brains and present it to the world through made-up people with made-up problems.
The tips that follow will clarify how to do that. Then, the downloadable Show, Don’t Tell worksheets will help you put these concepts into action.
As you go, please bear in mind that these rules can be broken. These aren’t all-the-time policies; they’re most of the time policies. But I’ll get into that later.
1. Use the Warm Puppy Strategy to Set the Scene
One of my favorite professors, the late Dr. Allen Metcalf, opened a short fiction class by reading Happiness is a Warm Puppy by Charles M. Schulz. If you have not read this masterpiece, it’s a book that defines happiness with concrete images.
Happiness is a warm puppy. Happiness is a fuzzy sweater. Happiness is finding someone you like at the front door.
Dr. Metcalf’s point was that emotional messaging resonates most powerfully when it’s delivered through a concrete image. You’re better off using the five senses to elicit certain feelings than loading your prose with adjectives like “delighted” and “ashamed.”
She spent four hours under the fluorescent buzz of the OR waiting room, her limbs heavy and her mouth sour from stale coffee.
The OR waiting room was an unpleasant place that made her feel more tired and sad.
Sadness is a fluorescent buzz and stale coffee. More importantly, these things are a specific kind of sad, different from “empty mailbox” sad or “shuttered storefront” sad.
On that note, be picky about your adjectives. Favor descriptive words that are precise and spark the senses. For example:
- “Melodic” instead of “pretty”
- “Grumbling” instead of “grumpy”
- “Chafing” instead of “uncomfortable”
2. Let the Action Tell the Emotional Story
Think of all the emotional explosions you’ve experienced while reading. What literary moments made you sob, swoon, suffocate on your own gasp, or collapse into a full-blown existential crisis?
Odds are, those scenes involved action. They were scenes in which a character made a decision so bold you didn’t see it coming. Or an unexpected-but-plausible event heightened an external conflict.
To be clear, these scenes only have the desired effect when the author weaves the internal and external conflict together. But my point remains the same:
Action is one of the most effective ways to portray a character’s emotional journey.
This is true even for less dramatic actions. Showing your character pop anxiety medication and doing breathing exercises before takeoff is more engaging than just saying they’re afraid of flying.
3. Let Conflict Do the Talking
You could say your character has a strained relationship with their sibling or you could show them avoiding one another at their own father’s funeral.
You could say your protagonist is ambitious or you could show them immediately butting heads with a new hire who outperforms them.
As for your love interests? You could just tell your reader that these two people can’t live without each other. Or you could pull them apart through circumstances beyond their control and show how they react.
When you establish a connection between your characters’ internal and external conflict, that external conflict will do a lot of heavy lifting for you.
4. Use Dialogue (But Not Like That)
Dialogue can be an excellent way to show instead of tell. Here’s a quick exchange from Pizza Girl with the scene description removed:
“I see you’ve met the most beautiful boy in the world. I swear, he’s not usually this dirty. He just got home from baseball practice. This is Adam. Adam, can you thank this nice lady for the pizza? Remember how good it was last week?”
“It was okay,” he said. “Thank you, though.”
From this exchange, you can tell that the first speaker (the mother):
- Loves her son
- Wants to connect with her son
- Is failing to connect with her son
- Cares what the pizza girl thinks of them
The dialogue shows us this without lines like, “This is my son. I adore him. I wish things were better between us. I hope you don’t judge me for his appearance or behavior.”
Now, there will be moments in your novel where it makes sense for characters to express their feelings and desires outright. This can be part of the showing. You just want to be careful about using dialogue as a way to dump your own telling impulse onto your characters.
To really nail show-don’t-tell dialogue, start to notice all the ways people say what they feel indirectly. For a fourteen-year-old, “I love you” might come out as “Oh my gosh, you’re such a dork!”
A Quick Note on Dialogue Tags
Also look for signs of telling in your dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is the phrase you use to indicate who’s speaking. “She said,” “he asked”... that sort of thing.
If you find yourself using a lot of adverbs, you’re probably veering in “tell” territory.
“I didn’t want it to turn out this way,” she said guiltily.
“I didn’t want it to turn out this way,” she said, lowering her gaze to the floor.
Quick side note: if you’re thinking that swapping out a “said” for something more specific like “bellowed” or “spat” is a show-don’t-tell move, you’re right. However, you want to use these sparingly to avoid distracting from the dialogue itself. This article on dialogue tags can help you find a happy medium.
5. Use Symbolism
A well-planted symbol can guide your reader towards a specific perspective, clarify the theme, or create a mood.
This could be a story-specific symbol like the conch in Lord of the Flies. The rules of the conch are made clear: the boy who holds it gets to speak his mind as part of their decision-making process.
When the conch is abandoned, the reader dreads what lies ahead because they no longer see the conch as just a shell. It’s democracy.
You can also tap into universal symbols. Describe the scent of blooming freesia as your character heads out for their first day at their exciting new job. Put a chipper bluejay on a curmudgeon’s apartment window every morning.
The Show, Don’t Tell worksheets will help you explore the potential power of basic objects in your scenes.
6. Write it Like a Screenplay
In addition to using your Show, Don’t Tell worksheets, sharpen your showing skills by writing a scene as a screenplay. (No voiceover narration allowed!)
For the first ten years of my writing career, I put the better part of my focus on screenwriting. It was an absolute game-changer for my novel writing because it turned showing into a habit.
See, when you write a screenplay (or a play, if that’s more your speed), all you have are action and dialogue. Those are your tools for conveying emotion and establishing deeper meaning. If the audience won’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t go on the page.
Now, you might think, “Yeah, but the actors will make it emotional no matter how it’s written.” Not true. The actors won’t even see the script if the script wasn’t able to elicit emotion from a long line of gatekeepers first.
If you’ve never read a screenplay, you can check out some examples of what this looks like here.
7. Sometimes, Just Tell
As you work through your Show, Don’t Tell worksheets, remember that you don’t have to scrub all traces of telling from your story. There are several instances where telling simply makes more sense. For example:
You need to explain a world or situation that is unfamiliar to the reader. They might need a quick primer on the technology of your science fiction novel. Or a quick background on your fantasy world.
You still need to make these explanations feel like they’re part of the storytelling. But if you have to be direct for clarity’s sake, do it.
You’ve got some backstory to unload. Ideally, you’ll share expository information that is also more showing than telling, with quick, vivid details that make your reader feel like they see the memory the way your character does.
However, you don’t need to recreate the entire memory. It’s fine to say, “She fell out of a tree when she was ten. The next day at school, kids swarmed her to examine the hot pink cast on her leg. It was the first and last time she felt popular.” A lot of telling and a dash of showing.
You need to move on with the story. Like when you want the reader to know that your character stayed at the office until 1:00 a.m. after the big meeting. Go ahead and say that. Nobody needs to see the spreadsheets and hear the lo-fi beats playlist.
It’s time for your character to say what they mean. This is the moment when your character is ready to admit their fear, confess their faults, or reveal their desires. Let them be direct.
Show, Don’t Tell Worksheets and More
Ready to apply these concepts to your next novel?
Download the Show, Don’t Tell worksheets to practice all the stuff we just talked about.
Then check out DabbleU for other great tips on building vivid scenes and characters.
If you could use a little help putting it all together in one brilliant work of fiction, check out this absolutely free ebook, Let’s Write a Book.
Finally, take advantage of all of Dabble’s clever features as you flesh out your scenes. Store your Show, Don’t Tell worksheet exercises in Story Notes, use the Comments to leave reminders to fix a dull section, and more.
If you’re not already a Dabbler, you can snag a free fourteen-day trial. This gives you access to all Premium features and you don’t need a credit card to sign-up. Click here and give it a whirl.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
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