Thursday, April 18, 2013

Show, Don't Tell

Writing and Revising
When I first started writing, I made many mistakes other novice writers do, one of which was telling my readers what my characters did, felt, and thought instead of allowing the characters to show this through their actions and dialogue.

You might ask—isn’t all writing telling? Not exactly.

Mastering this concept can be a challenge. “Telling” can creep into even the most experienced writer’s work. After all, the writer sees the scene clearly in their mind. It’s easy to forget the reader doesn’t have the same vantage point. Sometimes writers are engrossed in the story and, in the rush to get their thoughts on paper, they often skim over details resulting in telling instead of showing.

So, the editing phase is the perfect time to uncover telling scenes. Yes, we all dislike the editing process, but we owe it to our readers to dig a little deeper and put them on the stage with our characters.

So what exactly does “show, don’t tell” mean?

As Mark Twain put it, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

Let’s take a look at some examples to better illustrate the difference between show and tell.

Brenda was sad her mother died. She cried as she recalled her negligence in caring for her mother.
Brenda swallowed hard against the ache in her throat. She traced a finger over her mother’s name engraved on her headstone. Hot tears pressed at the corners of Brenda’s eyes in the chilly wind. She pulled her coat closer and drew a deep breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of you when I had the chance.”
A longer example:


Dawn was distraught that her terrier Fluffy lay on the side of the road dead. She felt guilty because it was her fault for letting him run free instead of putting him on a leash.


Dawn stumbled down the sidewalk. Her mind refused to believe what her eyes told her. Fluffy, her little brown terrier, lay in a crumpled heap on the roadside where a speeding car had tossed him like yesterday’s garbage.

Dawn dropped to her knees in front of Fluffy. She ran a trembling hand across his soft fur. He shivered one final breath before his body grew still.

“Fluffy!” Dawn scooped the dog into her arms and clutched him to her chest.

“Why?” She wailed. “Why did I let you out of the house without your leash?”

She rocked back and forth, sobbing, with tears streaming down her cheeks. Her neighbors stepped onto their porch and craned their necks to see what had happened.

The differences between the examples are obvious. In the second example, the reader sees Dawn is distraught and guilt-ridden without either word appearing in the text. Not only that, I’ve engaged the reader’s senses to the point where they may wonder how the rest of the scene will unfold. This keeps the reader from putting down the book.

This concept applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Whether you’re writing an article or a book, the best way to share your story is with anecdotes or scenes filled with action and dialogue.

Now, take a look at your work in progress (WIP), and see if there are scenes you can rewrite to show your story better.

What ways can you think of to show one or more of these emotions in your characters without actually using these words: joy, sadness, fear, excitement, rage, frustration, boredom, or anxiety?
If you’d like additional help, a great writing resource on this topic is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This can be purchased at

This post is available as a free PDF download by clicking on the icon in the left column.

©Laura Hodges Poole


  1. Excellent. I think we all had to learn this. So amazing what a difference it makes.

    1. Thanks, Pamela. It makes a great deal of difference in one's writing. So glad you stopped by.