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Exploring Show Don't Tell

Updated on July 14, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

If you have been a writer for any length of time, you’ll have heard this phrase before. If are a writer and never have, then you might want to reconsider your editor. Show don’t tell is very important and can make the difference between a good story and a great story.

What Does It mean

I have said this phrase many times and gotten just as many responses from people asking me what the *&$)#_#*%& did I mean. They have no clue. They think you write and that is it. Yet there is so much more.

What does it mean? It means let me as the reader sees and don’t tell me. Don’t treat me as though I’m stupid. Let my mind and the imagination do the work. Let’s look at an example.

When John finished speaking, it was evident that Aunt May was angry.

This is an example of telling. I can’t see Aunt May’s anger. You’ve just told me she is so I have to accept it. Visually, I’m coming up blank and that’s not good for most readers. I need you to show me and let me deduct that she is angry.

When I read that her lips were tight or that her knuckles were white against the arm of the chair, I can see she is angry. She is obviously not happy. She is not obviously not crying. That woman is mad. Now I can see it in my mind. Now the author has drawn me into the story and made me part of it.

Why It Is Important

Showing gives your story more depth. Telling is more like a Dick and Jane story. There is no imagination. It is bland. My mind is not called upon to do anything. What’s the purpose of the story then? You want the story to come alive when I read it.

A story is meant to captivate the reader. That means it has to pull the reader in. Let me give you an example from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. The following is a direct quote for the work:

A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period, I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every fibre. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable, and I cautiously moved forward, with my arms extended, and my eyes straining from their sockets, in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. I proceeded for many paces; but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely. It seemed evident that mine was not, at least, the most hideous of fates. (The Pit and the Pendulum)

If Poe decided to tell us the scene instead of showing us, it might look more like this:

I felt fear and almost lost it. Instead I stood up and moved my arms around in the hopes of feeling something in the dark. I began to sweat. I took a step forward but felt nothing. I admit that I was relieved.

Now aside from the fact that Poe is a much more talented writer than I am, which section do you see reads better? Which section has you seeing and feeling the scene instead of just being told of what is happening? Obviously, Poe’s section wins.

Do I need to say more?

Showing Emotion

One of the worst things you can do as an author is to tell the reader how a character feels. It is actually insulting to the reader. When a person is reading a story, they are playing a movie in their mind. They need just guidance as to what is going on. They don’t need to be told. They need for the images to appear in their mind.

Let me give you an example.

John was angry.

Okay, you told me, but I just can’t see it in my head. I know my mental movie won’t show him dancing with joy, but the picture of him doesn’t even get a status of hazy imaging. Be vivid. Give me a clear picture.

John’s lips pressed together as he narrowed his eyes at the way the man put his hand on John’s wife.

Now I can see his anger. I don’t have to try to come up with a reaction. You have shown it to me. The visual aide is there and working very well.

Which description do you prefer better? Readers want the second one.

So how do you train yourself? How can you teach yourself to show the emotion and not just tell it?

Watch Real People

People watching is one of the most educational things an author can do. Watch how they act and how they talk. Look at someone nearby. Describe what they are doing. Remember that I cannot see them as I am not there. You have to give me enough description so I can see what is going on.

Saying a woman is being dramatic could be a thousand pictures in my mind. There are several degrees of dramatic behavior. Describe it in detail and let me see it. Not sure how? Watch other people. How do they react? Use them as models for the characters in your stories. You can’t ask for better material resource.

The Emotion Thesaurus

I found a really great resource in a book called The Emotion Thesaurus. It shows you the many different ways to show emotion instead of telling it. You can look up anger and see how a face can portray it, posture, or even hand gestures. I love this book and can’t suggest strongly enough for you to get it for yourself.

Showing Character

When you are writing a story and want to show the read the character of one of your...characters, how do you go about doing it? Well, let’s look at what it means to show character.

The character of a person is comprised of their morals, ethics, and overall approach to life and situations. According to Webster, character is “: the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone's personality; a set of qualities that are shared by many people in a group, country, etc.; a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things”.

Let’s say for example that your Matilda is a sweet old lady. The fact that she is sweet is part of her character. Maybe she also is very honest, discreet, and does not forgive easily. You don’t want to tell the reader that as in “Matilda was a sweet old lady who was very honest, discreet, yet holds a grudge for quite some time.” That is boring and actually insulting to the reader. Describe a scene where she calls someone up because they gave her the incorrect change at the store. Her actions show me that she is an honest person. You don’t have to tell me. Show her character in action.

The same can be said about John Doe who is dishonest and has a knack for gossip. Let me, as a reader, see him action. I can deduce his character. By letting me see it, you give the story more depth and meat.

Also, keep in mind when you show character, you give more power to yourself as a writer. You can drop hints, direct the reader wherever you want, and mislead the reader at any time.

Showing Action

Don’t tell the reader that the character sat down or said. That is so bland and common. It’s boring. Let them actually see the character’s movements. Did the teenager sit down or was it more of a flop? While the end result is the same with their bodies resting on the chair, the method is entirely different. What I see in mind is entirely different. The mood of the scene changes when the action is visual.

In your first draft, go ahead and put that the character sat down in a chair. When you go back over the second draft, tackle it then. Look up other ways to express how you want the reader to see the action. The Thesaurus should become your new best friend.

Using the Thesaurus

Most authors tend to use the same phrase over and over. It’s only natural. We have words and phrases we are comfortable with. They come out even when we don’t want them nor expect them. A thesaurus can be a tremendous help with this. There are so many words we might know but because we don’t use them often we forget about them when we are writing. See what other ways you can describe the same action.

Using The Emotion Thesaurus

I can’t tell you enough how great this tool is. It helps a writer give more depth and meet to their work. It can help you portray the action you need to reveal out the character feels without having to point it out to the reader.

Be Observant

Watch how people act. Do they just walk or sit? Observe them and describe what you see in your mind. What affects how they move? Is there a difference between one person and another performing the same act. Keep your eyes open and watchful.

Read Other Books

How do other, more experienced authors, do it? How do they show and not tell? How does one show unease when being interrogated? Read Agatha Christie’s books.

Showing the Past

To really give your story depth, show people the past instead of telling them about it. Take your book further from the Dick and Jane style books and turn them into masterpieces by this simple act of showing the reader the past of her characters.


Hinting about the past is a great way to keep your reader in the dark while giving clues as to what might have happened. You can easily do this with the character thinking back on an object or event.

Ann remembered another locket of similar shape.

That’s all you have to write...for now. Remember that you are dropping hints. While you are doing that, the reader can get a glimpse into the past.


These are a great way to show the past. It is like writing a scene from a story that hasn’t been written and putting it in the midst of your current story. Taking the same sentence from above, you’d actually describe the scene where maybe she received the locket or found it. Describe everything about it as though it is a real scene in your book. It is your character looking back at that scene and reliving it. Let the reader relive it as well. Don’t just tell them Ann looked back on the scene.


The past can be shown simply someone giving an explanation. John asks Henry what is the deal with the animosity between two other people. Instead of just saying that Mike betrayed Ann, let Henry show us. He can go into an explanation that shows us the hurt and anger as well as the betrayal.


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