Show Not Tell Writing

STEP 1: Introduction to Show Not Tell Writing

WARMER: This first activity is meant to familiarize students with the difference between simply telling what something is like versus finding descriptive details that show what it is like.

INSTRUCTIONS: Climate change gallery walk. Before students enter, put pictures related to the environment and climate change around the room. Ask students to choose three different images. For each image, they will complete the phrase “This ecosystem is…” with appropriate adjectives. Then, they will write how they know that the ecosystem is this way. For example, if the ecosystem is toxic. What indicator is there of this toxicity? They could write: “The oil on the surface of the water”. Model the activity for them once before they begin. When they are done ask students to share what they have written. Highlight the difference between simply TELLING with an adjective and SHOWING with specific visual details.


This ecosystem is [insert adjectives]

Indication 1:

Indication 2:


This ecosystem is toxic.

Indication 1: Oil on the surface of the water.

Indication 2: Plants are withered.


STEP 2: Strategies for Show Not Tell Writing

ACTIVITY (I DO): When describing a person, place or thing we can use several strategies: adjectives, metaphor, similes, and sensory details. Introduce each of these strategies by defining the strategy and giving them an example.


  • Metaphor: Climate change is a tyrant.
  • Adjectives: Hot, polluted, green, nostalgic, barren, aggressive, unified
  • Similes: Climate change is like a prison of our own design.
  • Sensory images:
    • I saw the animals peak their heads from their holes
    • I smelled fry oil as the truck bellowed by.
    • I heard the crackle and pop of a ball blistering in the sun.
    • I touched my rubbery suit before I ventured outside.
    • I tasted the chalky, bitter dehydrated diet supplements.

ACTIVITY GROUP PRACTICE: Next, pick another subject to which you will apply these strategies as a class. Possible subjects include: green energy, healthy ecosystems, pollutants, temperature increases…or whatever you can think of. Now ask students to think of metaphors, adjectives, similes, and sensory images.

ACTIVITY APPLICATION: Now students will practice Show Not Tell writing. Review the two examples of sentences that are telling and sentences that are showing and then have them complete the last two boxes.

Telling Sentence Showing sentence
It was a crazed cat. With yellow eyes glowing red, long, black fur that stood on end, and a mouth full of decaying teeth, I knew the small animal before me had gone mad from chemicals in the soil.
It was hot outside. Deep cracks carved their way into the earth, pleading for even a drop of water, and the horizon was a blur of heat and desperation.
In the future, people fight for resources.





Eco-friendly technologies have changed transportation.





STEP 3: Show Not Tell Characters

ACTIVITY WARMER: Show students a clip from a film set in the future. Ask them how the people in the scene are feeling? How do they know? Write the responses on the board.

ACTIVITY GROUP PRACTICE: Next, explain that it is important to SHOW what the people of 2040 are like and not simply tell what they are like. To do this, writers reveal characters through the following means:

  • What they say…
  • What they think…
  • What they do…
  • What they look like…
  • What the other characters say about them…
  • How other characters react to them…

Play another scene from the film and ask students to finish the sentence frames above. Not all scenes will make these explicit. Students will have to imagine, for instance, what a person is thinking or what the other characters say about him or her.


  • What they say…
    • “I remember the good ol’ days before it was so hot all the time.”
    • “It’s a shame we are all going to have to move to Mars”
  • What they think…
    • “I’m hungry enough to eat my own socks.”
  • What they do…
    • He eats his own socks.
  • What they look like…
    • Broad, owlish face and lanky limbs
  • What the other characters say about them…
    • “Two weeks without food and he seems to have lost his mind”
  • How other characters react to them…
    • They keep their distance, wary of the voracious look in his eyes.

ACTIVITY INDEPENDENT PRACTICE: Show students another scene from the film and ask them to repeat the process above on their own. When they have finished, ask students to share what they have written.