Here are some examples to demonstrate how to ‘show, don’t tell’ in a creative writing piece for GCSE. The text it is based on is ‘My Last Duchess’, by Robert Browning in which a Medici prince talks about how he murdered his wife.

The extracts below are from a dramatic monologue written by a student. She had an issue with telling, not showing. I wrote new versions of her original, one for third person (omniscient), another for first person as in her original. Personally, I think it’s easier to write in third person, but can be more sophisticated and subtle in first – because it is harder to do.

What is the difference between telling and showing a story?

‘Walking down the hall’, Original:
As I walked along the halls of my Italian palace I passed the ghastly portrait of my last duchess. >

In third person (omniscient)
Dust caught in the light that streamed through the narrow, barred windows, slicing jewel-like across midnight velvet uniforms of the Duke’s servants who swept after him up the passage towards the great hall.

In first person (pov of duke)
Every time I come this way, it turns my stomach. The architect Salvatorre never should have made these passages so narrow. Dust settles at the edges and no matter how many servants I send down here to scrub it out, it’s always filthy. Her eyes watch me from the wall.

It’s a ghastly thing. Too dark by far, her face is deathly pale and those eyes – those eyes – I can still see them, burning into me even now in the half-lit hall, even in the glare of the gold dining plates and all these red-faced fools tilted obsequiously towards me, grease from the goose slavering down their chins.

‘Jewels’, Original:
She could make the exquisite jewels around her neck look like pebbles. >

third person (omniscient)
A lace-work of jewels dripped into her decolletage, collecting like pebbles she’d found, polished glass, the gold brassy against her chalk-pale skin. Every time she moved, it clinked. She moved her hand as if to push it away, then back again as if she didn’t dare disturb this thing her husband had hung around her neck. This lump of rubies looked like blood, beaded from a slit throat.

first person (pov of the duke)
She trembled under my fingers as I clasped the jewelled collar around her neck – too tight, she said and winced in the mirror. I nipped her with the clasp, my eyes touching hers in the mirror. This time, she understood. She did not wince, or not when I was looking.
This collar is a fist of rubies to ransom a prince, plucked by dark fingers from the banks of some Indian river. Tropical heat burns pinkish-red, silk needles under the surface. In candle light, the stones are the colour of blood, beading round her throat. Yet on her chalky skin, the lace-fine gold work might be brass, the gems, pebbles of glass.

‘Dinner’, Original:
When attending dinner she would foolishly use the wrong cutlery. >

third person
The duchess sat, eyes cast down, not looking at the cutlery that spread either side of the plate, almost to infinity, as if the sight frightened her. There was nothing on her plate, the gold reflecting sickly yellow under her chin.
She didn’t even dare to look at the food, the Duke’s disgust pressing on her frame so thin it looked ready to snap.

first person
There she sits – shuffling like a schoolgirl, looking miserably down at her cutlery. I don’t know why it makes me smile. She must be starving, but she hasn’t touched a thing. Her fine bird-bones peep from the collar of her dress, frail beneath my mother’s ruby necklace. ‘White as veal,’ Rodolfo said when he saw her first. ‘And bony. You’ll be black and blue from tumbling her.’ Rudolfo’s wife is round from all the cake he feeds her, always pregnant – by his groom, they say.

Next to my Duchess, she heaves and glows, black eyes shining, the daughter of one of those minor princes who infest the valleys with their incesant whining about the price of cheese. This one of mine, this skinny bird, is the daugher of a merchant – so busy grasping and clutching after gold that he never thought to teach his daugher table manners. So here she sits like a frightened calf, big eyes cast down because she knows I know, and I’m disgusted.