Style,  Writing

5 Tools that Show and Tell in Fiction

Showing and Telling Made Easy: episode two

show before you tell

“I know I’m supposed to show rather than tell, but how do I do it? And when must I do it?

Every new writer. Ever.

Are you a fiction writer struggling to master how to show and when to tell your story? This episode of Showing and Telling Made Easy will take you back to basics as we take a close look at the tools fiction writers use to communicate their stories.

To understand the difference between showing and telling, and the importance of showing before you tell, read episode one of Showing and Telling Made Easy—3 Reasons to Show Before You Tell.

5 Tools that Show and Tell

When you sit down to put pen to paper—or fingers to the keyboard—imagine your writer’s tool belt consisting of five different tools. Every sentence you put into your story will be crafted with one of these five tools—you may already know them as narrative modes, elements of storytelling, or even elements of narrative. I’m going to throw a spanner in the works (pun intended!) and call them tools that show and tell.

Understanding these five tools and their purpose in fiction will give you a solid grounding on which to master the skill of showing and telling.

So what are these tools that show and tell? I can guarantee you’ve heard of them. They are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Thought
  • Description
  • Exposition

Some of these tools are better for showing, while others only ever tell. Each tool has a purpose. The trick is to learn which to use at any given point in your manuscript.

So, let’s take a look at the five tools that show and tell and pay particular attention to when and how each should be used.

show before you tell

Show with Action

What is it? 

Every time something happens in your story, it’s action. Story events can include the actions and gestures of a character, movements of objects, or even an act of nature.

What does it do?

You will keep your story moving forward when you include action. It will allow your characters to achieve their goals or hit roadblocks. Your story’s action will allow the reader to ‘watch’ events unfold. 

Does it show or tell?

You can show a character’s traits through the way they interact with others and their environment. A character who is caring and considerate would help the little old lady cross the street, while the shady character with no morals would probably steal her handbag.

A character’s actions can show what they are thinking or feeling—there is a big difference between chuckling and guffawing, though each is essentially laughter. 

WHEN should it be used?

ALL THE TIME! The bulk of your manuscript should include action—without it, there is no story. It is essential if you wish to keep your reader engaged.

HOW should it be used?

The action in each scene must be relevant to the scene’s purpose. Consider what you are trying to achieve in each scene. Every act occurring within the scene should help you to achieve this purpose. 

Keep your manuscript fresh and unique by using a variety of different actions. When actions are overused in fiction, even within a single manuscript, they become cliché. We’ll explore this further in episode three of Showing and Telling Made Easy—How to Tell Effectively in Fiction.

show before you tell

Show with Dialogue

What is it? 

Dialogue is spoken action—the conversation that takes place between your characters. On paper, the dialogue appears within quotation marks.

What does it do?

The dialogue in your story will engage the reader—while they ‘watch’ the action in your story unfold, they will ‘hear’ the dialogue. Conversations between your characters will boost your story’s pacing. 

Does it show or tell?

The words your characters speak and how they deliver their lines makes dialogue a tool that is incredibly powerful. It can show a character’s traits, their emotion, the dynamics between relationships—even backstory! We’ll explore this further in episode four of Showing and Telling Made Easy—How to Handle Backstory in Fiction.

WHEN should it be used?

You should infuse dialogue throughout your manuscript. A movie containing endless scenes with no dialogue has to work twice as hard to keep the attention of the audience. It’s the same with a book. Maintain your reader’s engagement by giving your characters a voice.

HOW should it be used?

A scene that contains only dialogue would be one-dimensional. You can give additional meaning to the words a character speaks by interspersing it with other tools that show and tell, such as action and thought.

show before you tell

Show and Tell with Thought

What is it? 

You can present a character’s thoughts in different ways: through direct thoughts, usually made distinguishable through the use of italics, or through internal monologue. Take the following example from a short story I wrote called His Luminous Gemstone (available for FREE to subscribers of my author newsletter—subscribe here):

Nate shook the man’s hand. ‘I’m sorry, who are you?’

‘Oh, forgive me! Eric Preston, new orthopaedic surgeon at SRH. Lucy’s been telling me all about your achievements.’

Nate raised his brows. He had been the topic of discussion between them?

‘Speaking of which,’ she said, stepping forward, ‘Nate has a hundred other people queuing up to congratulate him. We should go.’ She gave Eric a gentle nudge and the two moved away.

Nate stared after them, uncertainty roiling away in his gut. He wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t put her in a difficult position if she were seeing someone—but the way she’d looked at him . . .

Can you identify the character’s thoughts in the excerpt above? First, Nate wonders whether he was the topic of discussion between Eric and Lucy, and second, he promises himself he “wouldn’t go there”. These are both examples of internal monologue.

What does it do?

Thought can be used to help the reader understand the character. It can be used to build tension or to convey necessary information that is important for the reader to know.

While it’s important for the reader to know what your character is thinking, each time you put them inside your character’s head, you hit the story’s pause button. As a result, lengthy passages of thought can have a negative impact on your story’s pacing.

Does it show or tell?

Thought mostly tells in the sense that the reader doesn’t have to interpret what the character is thinking. However, it can also show or reveal things about the character, their motivation or backstory. We’ll explore this further in episodes three and four of Showing and Telling Made EasyHow to Tell Effectively in Fiction and How to Handle Backstory in Fiction

WHEN should it be used?

Due to the way thought can impact a story’s pacing, it should be used only when necessary. Once again, think of your story as a movie. If you are constantly hitting the pause button to let the reader know what your character is thinking, your reader cannot ‘watch’ your story unfold. Large chunks of thought can also lead to reader disengagement.

HOW should it be used?

As in the excerpt above, if you must convey a character’s thought, you should do so quickly and concisely. This way, you will give the reader the information they need, and the story can continue to move forward. 

You should attempt to present a character’s thought to the reader by combining it with action or dialogue as this can give it greater meaning and relevance.

show before you tell

Show and Tell with Description

What is it? 

When you give details to the reader about people, places or things, you are providing a description. For example:

The flowers were yellow, as bright as the sun, and their fragrance was sweet and enticing. They stood tall with proud faces as if they were saying: ‘Look at me! Look at how beautiful I am! Come and admire me!’

In this passage, the flowers were described in a way that appealed to your senses of sight and smell. You might also appeal to your reader’s senses of hearing, taste, and touch, providing they are relevant to the person, place or thing you are describing.

What does it do?

You can immerse your reader in the world of your story by providing descriptions. It will help your reader to imagine your characters, setting and the objects that exist in your world.

You can use descriptions to help set the mood of any given scene. By describing something beautiful, as in the example above, you can create a calm and peaceful feeling in your reader.

In comparison, by describing something dark and frightening, you can evoke anxiety and fear. The adjectives and similes you choose should reflect the mood you want to create.

Does it show or tell?

Description mostly tells. With the example above, there is no chance of the reader imagining red, shrivelled flowers! But, description can also show. A point of view character that takes the time to describe flowers like this clearly appreciates the smaller things in life. In this way, you can use description to reveal what is important to your character, or how they feel about a person, place or thing.

WHEN should it be used?

You should only use description when it serves your story. It must be relevant to the scene, and every adjective should be chosen carefully to serve a specific purpose. If you over-describe—if you include a description that is irrelevant to the scene—you can significantly slow your story’s pacing.

Description can help you to avoid using actions that are cliché. We’ll be exploring this further in episode three of Showing and Telling Made Easy: How to Tell Effectively in Fiction.

HOW should it be used?

Knowing how to use description is vital. You can only describe what your point of view character can observe! For example, it is impossible for a character to describe their own facial expression.

You should also consider the physical location of your character; if they are in the kitchen, they cannot describe the sitting room.

Tell with Exposition

What is it? 

You use exposition when you expose or explain information about your characters or your story.

What does it do?

Exposition has two main functions in fiction: to provide facts about a character’s backstory, and to transition your story from one scene to the next—meaning you are informing your reader of a change in time, location or point of view.

Does it show or tell?

Exposition only ever tells. When you use this narrative mode, the reader is never required to interpret anything.

WHEN should it be used?

You should only use exposition when it is absolutely necessary. At times, you will need to transition your story, in which case, exposition is the tool you will use.

When it comes to backstory, you may need to communicate it to the reader through exposition occasionally. For the most part, however, it’s possible to show your character’s backstory using other tools that show and tell. We’re going to explore this further in episode four of Showing and Telling Made Easy—How to Handle Backstory in Fiction.

HOW should it be used?

Your exposition should be short and concise. As it only ever tells, use it when necessary, but do so quickly and then move on with your story. Long passages of exposition will disengage your reader.


So, you should now have a solid understanding of the five tools that show and tell in fiction—which ones show, which ones tell, and which do a little of both.

In the next two episodes of Showing and Telling Made Easy, we’re going to continue to explore ways we can use these narrative modes to show and tell. Join me for How to Tell Effectively in Fiction and How to Handle Backstory in Fiction.

Further reading: The Write Practice | 5 Elements of Storytelling

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Thanks for reading,

libby m iriks

Libby M Iriks is the commissioning editor of romance at Vulpine Press and offers freelance fiction editing services at Perfect Pear Editing and Proofreading. Libby is also an author of contemporary small-town romance where the chemistry sizzles and love is forever. Learn more about her writing at libbymiriks.com.

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