Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write like a Movie Camera
What does “show, don’t tell” even mean?
This ever present piece of writing advice has confounded more than its fair share of beginning writers. It’s found in creative writing classes and workshops, in nearly every guide on how to write, and in countless blogs like this one. Despite this, how do you actually put “show, don’t tell” into practice?
I was just as lost as you for many years. It’s easy to see why showing instead of telling is important in novels―you want your readers to feel engaged with the story and telling produces the same reaction as a dry newspaper article. The question then, is how to make the reader a part of the action—and the answer is, “like a movie camera.”
The True Meaning of Show Don’t Tell
- 1 The True Meaning of Show Don’t Tell
- 2 Why Bother Showing at All?
- 3 6 Ways to Write Like a Movie Camera
- 4 The Balancing Act of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Ask yourself—how do movies tell their stories? In a purely audiovisual art form, the only thing filmmakers can rely on is scenery, dialog, expression, and action.
By training your brain to think of writing the way filmmakers think of filming, you’re also training your brain to show, not tell. The result is an engaged, happy reader, fully invested in the action and surroundings of your story world.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekov
Of course, when writing veterans tell you to “show, don’t tell,” it helps to know the difference between those two terms.
Showing: Showing lets the reader experience your story through action, dialog, inner thoughts, and the five senses. For instance “His eyes lit up, and I felt my own face grin in return,” and “The sun beat down on our backs,” are examples of showing.
Telling: Telling informs your reader of a detail of your story by stating the information. “He was happy and so was I,” or “It was a sunny day,” are examples of telling.
However, showing versus telling isn’t always as simple as adding a few extra details. Showing can often recontextualize your scene by providing a better picture of the setting and characters.
Showing: The sun beats down on our backs―I can feel the sweat dripping down my forehead and into my eyes. It stings, so I grab the discarded shirt my partner had tossed next to me, scrubbing furiously at my face in frustration. The horses behind us provide a little shade, but their body heat only makes me feel closer to melting. God, I’ve come to hate those smelly animals. I’d rather take my chances alone with the desert sun.
Telling: It was a sunny day, and I was sweating from the desert heat.
Think about the difference between these two examples.
Telling only gives you a basic understanding of what’s going on: it’s hot in the desert, and the character is sweating. On the other hand, showing gives you not only the above information but also shows you how the main character is with a partner and their horses, presumably on some adventure, and that he’s on edge. It gives you an idea of his personality without ever telling you he’s an aggressive, rough-around-the-edges sort of guy.
That’s the real power of showing.
Why Bother Showing at All?
The reason showing is such an important skill for novelists is that is allows you, as the author, to guide your reader through your story.
Showing gives you the chance to express movement and action, and lets your reader experience the story as if it was happening around them. They become an active participant in the events of the plot, and soon enough they’ll feel invested in what’s going on.
Telling, on the other hand, is simply passing along information.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an important skill―sometimes you just need to get the facts out there. Still, telling too much makes it hard for your reader to feel like a part of your story’s world. It’s much more like reading a textbook or a newspaper. Showing, on the other hand, requires you to get deep into your story and pull your readers along with you.
Just like a movie camera as it pans through a scene, your readers will create a mental picture of your story world. Your job as the author is to help direct that movie camera, to give your readers the most cinematic experience you can.
“Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra
6 Ways to Write Like a Movie Camera
Let Actions Speak for Themselves:
By far the simplest way to show readers your story is to let your character’s actions speak for themselves.
When you’re watching a movie, you rarely have a narrator telling you how each character is feeling. Instead, actors use their facial expressions and actions to elaborate on their character. If a character is aggressive, the actor will use harsh movements, throw their weight around, and scowl at others. A nervous character will remain quiet, likely trying to disappear by standing at the edge of the group and hunching their shoulders.
This isn’t limited to main characters either. Every actor in a film, from lead roles to extras, has to use their actions to tell the story. Mobs of people will react with oohs and ahhs while the main character performs a trick, instead of announcing that “they’re excited.” Their response is just as important as the primary characters actions.
What’s true for films should be true for your story as well.
While you have the benefit of exploring your characters’ inner thoughts in your novel, make sure you’re also showing your characters’ emotions and personalities through their behavior.
Showing: When he pushed his way into the saloon everyone fell silent, shrinking back into their chairs as they watched him cross the room. He walked with his chest out, a lopsided sheriff’s star glittering on his coat. His broad shoulders were held square and his crooked eyes scanning across the men who had been enjoying their drinks. He sneered. “Get me a shot of whiskey,” he snarled in the bartender’s direction, and tossed his hat onto a nearby table before sitting down.
Telling: When he walked into the saloon, it was obvious that everyone feared him. He asked for a shot of whiskey before dropping his hat on the table and sitting down.
One of the fastest ways to spot telling in your writing is to look for adverbs.
Adverbs, like happily, quickly, angrily, and so on, are useful words when writing. However, they also can become a crutch for many writers. Overusing adverbs is far easier than elaborating on a scene, just like telling is far easier than showing. When an actor runs “hastily” through a scene in a movie you don’t just see him running, you also see his labored breath and the sweat coming off his face.
When most people tell you to “show, don’t tell,” they’re probably looking at your use of adverbs. Treat adverbs with caution and try replacing them with stronger words.
Tell your readers he shouted, versus that he said something loudly.
Showing: When the bartender took too long to bring him his drink, he slammed his fist on the table, making the weathered wooden legs shake. “Hurry it up over there!” he shouted.
Telling: When the bartender took too long to bring him his drink, he slammed his fist on the table forcefully. “Hurry it up over there!” he said loudly.
Use Dialog as If It Were Real:
Dialog is powerful in novels. Not only does it show your character’s emotions, but it’s also a great way to demonstrate their relationships, thoughts, and personalities.
Think about it: how do we communicate with others in real life? Yes, a lot of our communication is based on our body language and actions, but we also talk. And talk, and talk, and talk! Humans are vocal creatures, and language is how we communicate complex and important ideas. Since most movies don’t have the benefit of narration, they rely on dialog to provide exposition in scenes.
Your novel should function similarly. People with different personalities, backgrounds, thoughts, relationships, and feelings talk differently, and their dialog is a window into those traits. Have your characters talk like real people―let them tease one another, talk in half sentences, and use slang.
You obviously want their dialog to be understandable, and written dialog will never sound exactly like spoken language.
Still, always try to imagine your dialog coming from the mouths of real people.
Showing: “You know Vincent, maybe today I can get you some water,” the bartender said softly. Vincent sprung out of his chair, which flipped backwards onto the floor with a crack, “The hell’d you say to me old man!?”
Telling: “You know Vincent, you’ve been a drunk for years now, and terrorized this town ever since Emily left. You should stop drinking. Let me get you some water,” the bartender said softly. Vincent stood up quickly, “What the hell did you say to me old man?”
As an extra warning, don’t use your dialog as an exposition dump. When two characters who both know what happened 20 years ago spend five minutes explaining to each other what happened 20 years ago, it’s very obvious―and annoying―to your reader. Instead, weave exposition in naturally, through small dialog snippets, thoughts, memories, and settings.
“Now the second common characteristic of fiction follows from this, and it is that fiction is presented in such a way that the reader has the sense that it is unfolding around him… Another way to say it is that though fiction is a narrative art, it relies heavily on the element of drama.” ― Flannery O’Connor
Get Creative with the Details:
In modern movies, it’s not uncommon to have rather blatant branding deals. This results in characters conspicuously drinking Dr. Pepper, eating a Subway sandwich, or driving a Ferrari―I’m looking at you, Iron Man 3…
However, there are ways to do this tastefully, and it can actually be a huge benefit for your writing. It’s all about using specific details to add context and realism to your novel.
One of the first things an explorer does is name what they find. Because humans are so dependent on language to communicate, the act of naming something lends importance to that object, event, or place. Telling your reader about the Wonderbread in the cupboard or the neighborhood in Queens adds color to your story’s world and makes it feel real. Wonderbread has certain associations, as do specific locations, objects, brands, and historical events.
Of course, not every story you write will take place in 21st century America, but even in a fantasy world, you want to give specifics. Instead of Wonderbread and Queens, the Hobbits of The Lord of the Rings ate Lembas bread and traveled to Minas Tirith.
Their world felt real because it was named.
Showing: In a corner of the Bluewater Saloon, Maxwell watched as Vincent threw his tantrum. He fingered the Colt weighing down his belt, wondering if now was the right time. He couldn’t though… Not when he thought of Miriam and Joshua, and of the chaos that would ensue as Vincent’s men and the honest folk of Bluewater battled it out for control. He couldn’t risk never coming home to them.
Telling: In the corner of the saloon, a man watched as the sheriff threw his tantrum. He fingered a revolver and wondered if he should shoot him. But he couldn’t, not with his wife and son in town. He knew chaos would ensue if the sheriff’s men and the residents of the area had to battle for control. He couldn’t risk never coming home.
This is where it starts to be a stretch to compare novels to movies. Movies are about visuals and sounds, relying on action, dialog, music, and setting to reveal the inner lives of their characters. Novels, on the other hand, have the benefit of exploring a character’s inner thoughts directly.
Despite this, writers often struggle with “show, don’t tell” because they don’t know how else to express their characters emotions. “She was happy” might seem like it can only be expressed a few ways. However, by thinking of that happiness as a living creature, a whole wealth of possibilities open up. “She was happy,” becomes “she felt happiness blooming in her chest, crackling like fireworks whenever she saw her child.” Or perhaps “she felt a quiet happiness, a soft buzzing in her ribcage that told her all was well.”
There’s a lot more nuance available when you think of emotions as their own living things, imbuing them with the characteristics of nature, human beings, and other objects.
By using humanity’s natural desire to personify things, you take something abstract and make it tangible.
Showing: Maxwell was torn, despite his reservations. His father had worn that sheriff’s star when he was a boy, but he had refused that same honor. As a result, he and his neighbors were stuck under Vincent’s thumb, and guilt had eaten away at his otherwise calm demeanor. As he watched Vincent snarl in the face of the wrinkled bartender that guilt grew into something more. Rage took hold of him, and thoughts of Miriam and Joshua’s safety faded further from his mind. His Colt felt hot in his hand.
Telling: Maxwell was unsure, despite his reservations. His father had worn that sheriff’s star when he was a boy, but he had refused that same honor. As a result, he and his neighbors were stuck under Vincent’s thumb, and he felt guilty. As he watched Vincent snarl in the face of the wrinkled bartender, his guilt turned into rage. His Colt felt hot in his hand.
Rely on ALL Five Senses:
Much like personifying emotions, relying on all five senses in a movie is much more difficult than in a novel. However, I;m not giving up on this metaphor just yet, so bear with me. 🙂
The final key to applying the wisdom of “show, don’t tell” in your writing it to use all of your character’s senses to tell your story. Think of yourself as a 4D movie camera, somehow possessing the ability to pick up smell, touch, and taste alongside the usual sight and sound.
“Snyder: There are some things I can just smell. It’s like a sixth sense.
Giles: Well, actually, that would be one of the five.” ― Mutant Enemy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When you tell your readers what breakfast tastes like, what a cool summer breeze smells like, or what the rough fur of an alley cat feels like, you’re engaging them even further in the world of your story. Taking that to a higher level, your characters should be equally engaged in that world. If they were real people, how would they react to the sensations around them? If a loud plane flew overhead, you can bet they’d look up. Perhaps they’d cover their ears, or raise their voices over the noise.
By showing (hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling) your story to your reader, while also showing how your characters are reacting to the world around them, you’re creating a story world that feels intensely real.
While this may seem like one of the simplest ways to show in your writing, you’d be shocked how easy it is to overlook all five of our senses.
Showing: Suddenly Maxwell heard the crackling of lightening, and a haze of smoke drifted across his face. He smelled the gunpowder before he heard the shouts of the other men, and as he stood up in horror, he felt the Colt hanging lifeless on his belt. Still, he had to question if it was his bullet that tore through the room a second earlier. Through the haze he saw Vincent’s body hunched across the bar, and to his right a boy holding a trembling revolver in his hands. Eli, the bartender’s grandson, stood on the stairs, a light smattering of blood freckling his pale face, the whites of his eyes reflecting the light. Maxwell had to get him out of there… Before Vincent’s men came… Before hell crawled its way up to earth and burned this town to the ground.
Telling: Suddenly, Maxwell heard a gunshot. He stood up, but the Colt was still on his belt. Still, he had to question if it was him who shot Vincent. Across the room, he saw Vincent’s body hunched over the bar, and to the right he saw a boy holding a revolver. Eli, the bartender’s grandson, stood on the stairs. Maxwell had to get him out of here… Before Vincent’s men came.
The Balancing Act of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Now, as you’ve been reading this article, I’m sure you’ve noticed a big difference between the examples of showing and telling. Showing results in much longer passages. It requires description and lots of time, both to write and for your reader to read. So, here’s my advice―take “show, don’t tell” with a grain of salt.
Yes, I know that sounds strange considering you just read all about why you should show, not tell. The key to that advice, however, is balance. Telling has its place in novels, just like showing does. There will be passages where you need to convey the passing of time, get across simple ideas, discuss backstory, cut the fluff, and create transitions―all of which require telling.
While showing is vital to an engaging novel, telling is equally vital to a novel that doesn’t drag.While showing is vital for writing a novel, telling is equally vital for ensuring that novel doesn’t drag. #amwriting Click To Tweet
When writing your novel here are a few things to keep in mind to help strike a balance:
#1: In movies the scenery becomes background noise while the action and characters are the focus. Strike a similar balance in your novel. When introducing a place, take the time to show it. From then on, don’t be afraid to call it by name.
#2: Only show details that matter most. In a scene where there are five things to show, pick the two that will best illustrate your story.
#3: Don’t ignore showing during action scenes, but keep your prose concise to maintain the pacing.
#4: When writing your first draft focus on getting the words on paper. Then go back while self-editing to infuse your novel with showing.
Above all, honor your own personal writing style.
If you’re happy with your writing and believe it’s working, go for it! The literary masters didn’t become geniuses by following the trend, no matter what some may say. 🙂
Thoughts on Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write like a Movie Camera
Thanks for explaining the difference. It really helps with me being a first time author. I often have trouble with showing rather than telling. It helps to see the scene like a movie director to the pan camera across the dusty wild wild west.
Thank you so much for making some of these concepts more clear for those of us who are still learning the writer’s vocabulary Lewis. Super work!
WOW! Finally, someone has explained this to me in a way that is easy to understand and not vague. Thank you.
You’re very welcome Deborah! 🙂 I’m glad I was able to help.
This is a really great article. I really struggle with this aspect of writing, so articles like this are very helpful.
I’m glad to hear it helped you Lindsey!
Excellent article on Show don’t Tell. Six Ways to Write Like a Movie Camera. As a published author of five mysyery/supense novels, I initially used the technique of writing my first novel as if I was watching a movie. I didn’t read any articles about this technique. It seemed easier to for me to show and not tell my story. When I talk with novice writers, I also tell them to visualize their story through the eyes of a movie camera.
I’m glad to hear the article was helpful for you Gregory! It really is quite an intuitive way of thinking about storytelling, especially in such a movie and TV saturated world. 🙂