Show, Don't Tell

Analyzing the Text
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Performing Arts
Small Group, Entire Class, Individual, Writing, Out of Seat


  • Students will understand the difference between “showing” and “telling” in writing.
  • Students will identify and be able to create their own examples of brief passages that “show” instead” of “tell.”
  • Students will be able to identify and explain examples of “show, don’t tell” from Travels with Charley.
  • Optionally, students will be able to use their own “show, don’t tell” examples and those from Travels with Charley in short action-based skits.


Understanding the difference between “showing” and “telling” will not only enhance the students’ enjoyment of literature, especially Travels with Charley, but will improve their own writing and make it more vivid and visual.

Students, in pairs or small groups, will be responsible for creating their own brief examples (starting with sentences and moving up to paragraphs) of “show, don’t tell” as well as identifying examples from Travels with Charley. Both sets of examples can then be placed on the classroom walls for all to enjoy. Optionally, time permitting, small student groups can act out brief action-oriented skits based on the examples.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Classroom dictionaries
  • Travels with Charley notebooks
  • Butcher paper/markers

Estimated Time

  • 1 class period to explain “show, don’t tell” and get students started on creating their own examples and finding those from Travels with Charley.
  • After the initial class period, the process is ongoing—teachers should take time as needed/available to continue the process.


  • First, teachers should explain the difference between “showing” and “telling.” As Mark Twain once said, “Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
  • ~Basically, “telling” is abstract, passive, has little or no action, and does not involve the reader. For example, “John was nervous.”
  • ~“Showing,” on the other hand, is active, involves the reader, contains action, and tends to paint a “word picture.” (Also see Sentence Fluency.) For example, instead of writing “John was nervous,” one might write, “John pinned himself against the wall and listened to his shallow and quick breathing. Beads of perspiration rolled down his brow and stung his eyes.” Note that in this example, the word “nervous” is not used.
  • Write a couple more examples on the board: for instance, “Lisa felt scared when she saw the rabid dog” and “Mr. Jones, the principal, was angry today.”
  • ~Ask for a couple of student volunteers to come to the board and rewrite the sentences by showing how “scared” Lisa is and how “angry” Mr. Jones is without using those particular words.
  • ~After students have completed their rewrites on the board, ask other students to comment on why the rewrite is effective. Students should be taking notes as well.
  • Teachers should repeat this process as necessary until they feel students have a good grasp of the concept of “show, don’t tell.”
  • Before breaking up into pairs or small groups to write “before and after/show, don’t tell passages,” provide the students with the following tips:
  • ~Study movies! A movie cannot possibly tell its viewers everything. How does a viewer know when a character is scared, happy, nervous, sad, excited and so on?
  • ~Use plenty of details. Details provide vivid images in the reader’s mind. For example, when describing a new car, include details about its color, design, make, smell, shape, accessories, and so on.
  • ~Five senses. As much as possible, use the five senses when describing. For example, how does your grandmother’s garden smell? How does it feel (watch out for the thorns on the rose!)? How does it taste? What does it look like? What sounds are heard?
  • ~Figurative language. Steinbeck is a master at this. Using the garden example above, one might write, “When I touched the thorn of the rose, it was as if I had been unfairly stabbed by beauty.”
  • ~Action. Include action as this will allow readers to “see” what is happening.
  • ~Dialogue. Dialogue can also “show” something about a situation or a character. For example, “You know, you’re an idiot, and I don’t know why I ever wanted to be friends with you.” This certainly shows the reader something about the character.
  • Have students break up into pairs or small groups to come up with their “before and after” passages. Even though the passages should be brief, as students become more comfortable with the process such “after” examples can be paragraph length.
  • ~Student groups then can share their examples with the entire class.
  • ~The rest of the class is encouraged to offer respectful comments on why the “showing” examples were effective.
  • ~Student groups can place their examples on the wall for all to enjoy.
  • ~Time permitting, groups can also “perform” some of their examples in a brief action-based skit.
  • After students are comfortable with the “show, don’t tell” process, they are ready, in their small groups, to find examples in Travels with Charley. Teachers, while guiding the process, should ensure that it is the responsibility of the students to find their own examples. For teachers, below are a few especially effective examples of “show, don’t tell” from Travels with Charley.
  • ~When Steinbeck is driving through Maine: “The sky was the color of wet gray aluminum and there was no indication on the translucent shield where the sun might be, so I couldn’t tell direction” (47).
  • ~In Chicago, after Charley has been groomed: “Charley’s combed columns of legs were noble things, his cap of silver blue fur was rakish, and he carried the pompon of his tail like the baton of a bandmaster. A wealth of combed and clipped mustache gave him the appearance and attitude of a French rake of the nineteenth century, and incidentally concealed his crooked front teeth” (95).
  • ~While in North Dakota: “The night was loaded with omens. The grieving sky turned the little water to a dangerous metal and then the wind got up – not the gusty, rabbity wind of the seacoasts I know but a great bursting sweep of wind with nothing to inhibit it for a thousand miles in any direction” (117).
  • ~In Louisiana, Steinbeck picks up an African American man and gives him a ride; the man proves to be very nervous: “He clasped his hands in his lap, knotted and lumpy as cherry twigs, and all of him seemed to shrink in the seat as though he sucked in his outline to make it smaller” (201).
  • After student groups have completed their search for examples from Travels with Charley:
  • ~Student groups then can share their examples with the entire class.
  • ~The rest of the class is encouraged to offer respectful comments on why the “showing” examples were effective.
  • ~Student groups can place their examples on the wall for all to enjoy.
  • ~Time permitting, groups can also “perform” some of their examples in a brief action-based skit.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • Students should feel confident about being able to understand the difference between “show” and “tell” in writing and apply such.
  • Further, students should be able to find examples of “show, don’t tell” in Travels with Charley and be able to explain why Steinbeck’s usage was effective.


  • Teachers will monitor and grade subsequent related homework.


  • Test students on “show, don’t tell” examples, in which they first write their own and then identify examples from Travels with Charley.

California State Content Standards Met

  • Performing Arts: Theatre Content Standards 6-12
  • ~Artistic Perception: 1
  • ~Creative Expression: 2
  • ~Historical and Cultural Context: 3
  • ~Connections, Relationships, Applications: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1,2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4,5,6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5

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