You may have heard writing teachers instructing their students to “show, don’t tell,” or maybe you’ve used that little nugget of advice yourself when working with student writers or trying to create show don’t tell examples.
In fact, Anton Chekov himself preaches the importance of this when he says:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
If you have heard this phrase, then you know it refers to imagery and sensory details in writing. We want students to use descriptive imagery when writing, and we want authors whose books we’re reading to be able to execute this skill with sophistication and ease.
Why Sensory Detail & Imagery is Important
Alright, Chekov, we hear ya, but why is sensory detail and imagery so important?
Because using these descriptions is what makes the reading come alive. Without these types of details we cannot imagine the setting, characters, and action.
“Telling” is merely passing along information, facts, and evidence. In contrast, show don’t tell examples, sensory details and imagery are what helps us make that little movie in our minds as we read and keeps readers engaged. Without them, everything is dull and lifeless.
Telling: She was hungry.
Showing: Her stomach tied itself in knots and reached through her throat to grab the aroma of breakfast at grandma’s house – buttery eggs mixed with bacon grease and sticky-sweet syrup on stacks of pancakes. She tried to remember the last time she’d eaten that day.
Oftentimes student writers struggle to incorporate these show vs. tell details into their writing, and it makes reading their writing a laborious chore.
The good news though is that by using show don’t tell examples and having students practice this technique with some simple exercises, they can become experts at creating vivid writing that won’t leave you snoring at your desk when reading student work.
Show Don’t Tell Poem Examples
To begin helping students understand what showing instead of telling looks like, show them some examples. I like to start my mini-unit on this technique by showing some examples in poetry. Poetry is basically a no prep way to bring in examples of sensory details and imagery because you can pretty much blindfold yourself and do an eenie-meenie-miney-moe in order to choose a poem with imagery in it, plus the length of poetry makes it so stinkin’ simple to use a line, stanza, or entire poem as part of your lesson without soaking up a ton of instructional time.
Here are ones I like best!
- “All day/its dark, slick bronze soaks/ in a mossy place,/ its teeth/ a multitude/ set/ for the comedy/ that never comes/ its tail/ knobbed and shiny,/ and with a heavy-weight’s punch/ packed around the bone.” from “At Black River,” Mary Oliver
This poem is so fun because Oliver does a beautiful job describing an alligator (though some have described the main focus of the poem to be a crocodile) and the wild Florida landscape. There are some easy adjectives used to create the image in the minds of readers like: dark, slick, bronze, mossy, a heavy-weight’s punch, etc.
Because Oliver doesn’t expressly come out and say what the figure she’s describing is, it’s fun to let kids guess. There are enough visual details included for them to reasonably arrive at alligator or crocodile, and while I never make a big deal about it having to be one or the other, students get really into trying to prove their peers who think it’s the opposite of their guess wrong. And I’m never going to discourage them from using their close reading skills to find evidence to support a theory. Learning in disguise, I’m always preaching it!
- “The butcher knife goes in, first, at the top/ And carves out the round stemmed lid,/The hole of which/ allows the hand to go / In to pull the gooey mess inside, out—/The walls scooped clean with a spoon./ A grim design decided on, that afternoon,/ The eyes are the first to go,/ Isosceles or trapezoid, the square nose,/ The down-turned mouth with three/ Hideous teeth and, sometimes,/ Round ears. At dusk it’s/ Lighted, the room behind it dark.” from “Halloween,” Mac Hammond
I love this poem because the first few words always get the attention of teenagers. Once I have their attention, I can actually see their shoulders relax as they piece together with just the next few words that this isn’t necessarily going to be a gory poem.
Gore aside, students can easily pick out the details because they understand the act being described in this poem. There are obvious examples of imagery and sensory details like: round stemmed lid, gooey mess, walls scooped clean with a spoon, and so on. But this poem is great for showing that it’s not always just the adjectives alone that help us engage with the text and visualize what’s happening, but sometimes it’s always about concrete word choice. Like in the lines “The eyes are the first to go,/ Isosceles or trapezoid, the square nose.” By using specific words that describe shapes, we get a very clear picture of just exactly what it is we’re supposed to be visualizing.
- “The dog has cleaned his bowl/ and his reward is a biscuit,/ which I put in his mouth/ like a priest offering the host.” from “Biscuit” by Jane Kenyon
This super short poem is perfect for teaching many literary and poetic techniques, but I like to bring it into my lesson on show, don’t tell because of the way in which Kenyon describes the character giving the dog a biscuit. Throughout the entirety of the poem, and in these lines in particular, there’s not a ton of imagery and sensory detail, but Kenyon uses another literary device, the simile, to describe how the treat was administered to the dog. This is a great example to show students that it’s not always just about adjectives to describe how something looks but also actions need description too, and using a comparison technique like a simile, is a sophisticated way to accomplish this.
Show Don’t Tell Examples From Books
Repetition is the key to learning and so students cannot see too many examples of the show don’t tell technique. I like to use examples from books as a way to start scaffolding students to find examples of show don’t tell in their independent reading books.
Here are some show don’t tell examples from books I like best!
- “The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.” from The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman
Charlotte Perkins Gillman did not come to play in The Yellow Wallpaper – the whole story is just that perfect eerie, spooky, feminist goodness. But she realized she had to deliver her message to an audience who was not likely ready to receive it or could fully understand it. So she brought the heat with her word choice to show the plight of women at the time. Using words like “unclean,” and “repellant,” the reader is already associating negative feelings to this wallpaper, setting up the perfect mood for the rest of the story. Truly you can see and smell and almost taste this description. *Chef’s kiss, Charlotte!*
- “People really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.” —from Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Give me every book in the Creekwood series every day of the week. This whole novel is amazing, but this quote is particularly wonderful. This is another use of a simile to draw a comparison to help the reader visualize and understand the deeper meaning of the events of the book. It doesn’t just rely on descriptive words, though those are certainly present, but rather using the art of comparison creates a richer, more sophisticated description.
- “Against an eggplant-purple backdrop shone a single bright star, blue as a sapphire, like a fleck of afternoon someone had forgotten to wipe away.” from We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
Tommy Wallach is describing an asteroid here.
Like, a world-altering asteroid.
Think about that rich description! You can totally picture it. He doesn’t just say “There was an asteroid in the sky.” That’s telling. He really shows what that looks like! Such a beautiful description!
Teaching Show vs. Tell
To get students to stop telling everything (She woke up. She brushed her teeth. She got dressed. She went to school….*sigh*), they need some explicit instruction before and coaching during the writing process.
Teaching show vs. tell is cyclical in my experience. You’re going to need to repeat some of your mini lessons multiple times before students get the hang of it. To start, try these show vs. tell task cards!
Here are some things to keep in mind for teaching and coaching throughout the writing process:
- Explain what show don’t tell means
- Provide mentor texts/examples for students to see this technique in action
- Give students a text that tells and ask them to rewrite it to show
- Provide graphic organizers for students to organize how they plan to incorporate imagery and sensory details before drafting
- Work with students in writing conferences as they draft. Point out areas in which they’re doing a great job with the concept and areas that can be improved.
- Pull examples from student notebooks to project to the class. Offer praise and specific feedback about what’s going well.
- Encourage students to use a blend of showing and telling. Remember, some telling is necessary at times!
- Partner students together to give one another feedback. Encourage them to think about if they can make a movie of what’s being said in their minds. If not, where are areas for improvement in their partner’s writing?
Show Don’t Tell: What NOT to Do…
To master this skill requires sophistication of language and understanding of nuance. These are not qualities our emerging writers often possess. So when learning to show rather than tell, they can lay it on thick.
You’ll go from receiving papers that read: She wanted to go to the concert. Her mom told her no. She snuck out and went anyway.
To papers that read: She desperately desired to go to the country music concert that was 5.2 miles away from her house. When she politely asked her mom her mom rudely told her no. She was so upset by this rejection that she vowed she would go anyway. She dressed in blue jeans, a gray sweater, purple sneakers, and put on her 1.5 inch gold hoops, her necklace that was gold with a very tiny bird charm that dangled on the end, and did her makeup using her favorite palette from Bobbi Brown and the new mascara she bought 4 days before at the mall when she went with her best friend Becky. She quietly pushed open her bedroom window and it creaked a little bit. She jumped out of the window and onto the roof trying hard not to make a sound so she wouldn’t be caught.
Like, a little?
But still, it’s pretty tedious.
More details don’t always mean objects, ideas, places, etc. have been shown. You can probably get a bit better of a picture painted in your mind from the second example, but it doesn’t really help your understanding.
It’s important to help students not go overboard.
When it comes to show, don’t tell, what not to do can be just as important to teach as what to do.
Show Don’t Tell Exercises
Highlighting can be a great way to show students vs. tell students what descriptive writing looks like! Print reading passages and have students highlight areas in which the author shows instead of tells. You can start by having students highlight any instances of this technique they see. Eventually, as they become more confident, you can ask for specific color coding such as:
- Highlight dialogue that shows instead of tells in pink
- Highlight character descriptions in blue
- Highlight setting details in green
- Highlight sensory details in yellow
Create a 5-senses chart by asking students to make a 5-column chart in their writer’s notebooks, one column for each of the 5 senses. Turn on a timer and challenge students to brainstorm as many details as they can about what they’re writing about and organize them in the appropriate column. After the timer goes off, have them highlight their top 5 and then have them incorporate them into their writing.
Dialogue is a great way to show instead of tell. Show students some solid mentor texts in which an author uses dialogue as a means to paint the picture of the story.
This picture could be the way in which a character speaks (Do they use a lot of slang? Does their dialect seem regional? Are they long winded or very quiet? Are they funny?), some description of their body language as they speak, a description of how other characters are reacting as one is speaking, and so on.
To get students to incorporate dialogue that shows instead of tells, start by having students storyboard their ideas and then go back and add dialogue to the storyboard. Encourage them to list ways they can incorporate show don’t tell into the dialogue in this pre-writing phase. It can be intimidating to start applying the skill right away, but by merely mapping out scenes, characters, the general gist of the dialogue first, it takes a lot of the pressure of being “right” off.
Indirect characterization and body language, like dialogue, are types of showing vs. telling, just more subtle. Dialogue can be a way to develop characters indirectly, and physical description definitely plays a role, but implied meaning is key to developing indirect characterization. Instead of saying that Tommy was a bad student, how can that be shown?
Start by making a T-chart on some chart paper and have students make up an imaginary character as a class. Have students give the character a name and write that name at the top of the chart. Label one side “direct characterization” and the other “indirect characterization.” Have students brainstorm a list of traits their imaginary character possesses and list them in the direct characterization column.
Next, challenge students to show those same traits indirectly. You may need to model one or two for them before they get on a roll. As they shout out ways to express those traits indirectly, jot them down in the indirect characterization column.
Another easy peasy swap for show don’t tell is to exchange state-of-being verbs for action verbs. It sounds obvious, but action verbs show us what’s happening. Sometimes students can get bogged down in using state-of-being verbs (this often happens when they’re incorrectly relying on passive voice, so you can help them kill two birds with one stone when they go to revise) and it makes their writing sound as though it’s telling more than it’s showing.
Keep an anchor chart of strong verbs hanging in your classroom. If you’re noticing weak verb choices in student writing as you confer, point them to the chart and help make some suggestions.
You know when you leave the movie theater after seeing an adaptation of a book you loved with a friend and all you can talk about is how the movie was different than the book? So much gets cut out when a book is turned into a movie. It simply has to be in the interest of time. But even though we can easily see and hear the characters and actions in the movie, the book always feels so much better.
It’s in the details.
Humans desire stories that unfold slowly and are packed with rich and meaningful details. We want to imagine the world and characters for ourselves. It helps us make better connections with the text. Show, don’t tell is so meaningful for our reading experience.
Speaking of connections and meaningful experiences, I’d love to connect with you! Have a hot tip for teaching students to show instead of tell? Do you have a favorite show don’t tell example? Drop it in the comments section! Have a question about something I’ve discussed today? Please let me know! I would just love to (try my best to) help!
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.