Show Don’t Tell [Insert Scream Here]

I think the overall feedback “show don’t tell” is about as productive as a coach standing at the side of a pool and yelling, “Swim better! Go faster!”

However, every cliché started out as simple brilliance, so instead of dismissing the catch-all comment in frustration, I started a list of what people really mean, such as:

– Don’t tell me how she felt; make me feel it.
– Don’t tell me how she seemed; make me see it.
– Don’t tell me what she knew; help me figure it out.
– Don’t tell me what she is; show me what she does.

These particular components aren’t the whole of what “show, don’t tell” means on a macro level, however, they provide direction for editing and even suggest some search terms for pinpointing issues at the sentence level. I discovered recently that when a writer thinks he is showing while the readers still feel removed from the scene, the reason can come down to the construct of just a few sentences. Below are some examples. [Please note that there are a million other ways to show versus tell, and I am not suggesting that you change every instance of these words or phrases; that will certainly ruin your manuscript. The purpose of these examples is merely to trigger ideas.]

Seemed or appeared to be
“Seeming” or “appearing” is a deduction by the observer, so why not show your evidence to the readers and let them deduce?
Telling: She seemed to know what she was talking about.
Showing: She answered the client’s questions loudly and without hesitation.

(Of course, introducing too many “ly” words in your attempts to show can create a different problem, so be judicious.)

Sometimes you have to tell the reader what the character is feeling, but you don’t have to do it in a way that puts the telling between the feeling and reader. For example:

Telling: She felt distanced from her family.
Revision 1: She felt like a colonist on the moon compared to her family.
This revision is a step closer to providing an experience for the reader, but the character’s perspective may still be in the way.
Revision 2: A colony on the moon would have felt more like home.
This second revision takes the readers directly to imagining a colony and feeling its contrast from their sense of home without filtering through the character first.

Sometimes, the fix requires more than reworking one sentence.
For example:

Telling: She felt betrayed by his words.
Showing: If you have to explain a strong reaction half-way through the book, you probably need to improve the lead-in to that moment. Ideally, the characters should be so clear and the dialogue so good that when the readers hear him speak those words, they will gasp in shock and feel betrayed on your heroine’s behalf without your ever having to tell them what she felt.

Saw/ could see
Do you need to tell the reader that the characters are performing the act of seeing, or can you just describe the view?

Telling: She could see that he was upset, but she didn’t know how to help him.
Showing: He was banging his head against the side of the cage, but she didn’t know how to help him.

“Was” has many legitimate uses, but it can also hide passive adjectives.
Telling: He was haggard. She was happy. He was fit. She was pretty.
Showing: Describe something about her and let the readers decide that she’s pretty. Point out his six-pack abs or runner’s calves, and cliché or not, the readers will have a better idea of what kind of “fit” he is.

Looked (as an inactive verb)
If “looked” can be replaced with “was”, “seemed”, or “appeared”, then the notes above apply.

Telling 1: He looked gaunt.
Revision 1: He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
I would argue that, in addition to being cliché, this revision is still telling more than showing.
Revision 2: His clothes hung on his body like a washcloth on a wire rack.
This version provides a better visual, although you can go overboard with analogies just like adverbs, so be aware.

(“Looked” can be a valid inactive verb, but if it is used two or three times on the same page or three or four pages in a row, a couple of instances are likely to be opportunities for improvement.)

Looked (as an active verb)
As with “saw”, jumping right into the view could amplify the experience for the reader.

Telling: She looked up at the spiders crawling on the ceiling.
Showing: Spiders crawled on the ceiling above her head.
In the telling case, the readers will follow the character’s eyes and restrict the experience to their vision. In the showing case, they can experience the crawling first, at the top of the head and down the spine.


Version 1: She knew she would drown if she didn’t get out soon.
Version 2: The water was rising a foot every minute, so she had to find a way out, and soon.
The ultimate action is the same in both versions, but the second allows the reader to experience the evidence directly then realize the consequences at the same time as the character.

As with all of the examples, either version might be appropriate, depending on the construct of the scene. The important point is to be aware of what the reader will be feeling as well as what the character is feeling. Because, in short, “show, don’t tell” is about making the reader a participant in each experience, not just an observer.

What are some ways that you identify instances of telling versus showing?

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell [Insert Scream Here]”

  1. Terrific advice, Krista – that kind of editing takes a lot of application to learn. Just one question: would you say the same things apply to first person PoV? (I know, I know, I’m probably asking for another post 🙂 but I’d like to know what you think.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I think searching for these terms would still be useful, because even though first person descriptions are, by definition, filtered through the character, they still need to provide an experience for the reader. I’m thinking of an example:

      Telling: That girl was nuts. I knew it the first time I met her.
      Showing: The first time I met her, she got up in my face and yelled for ten seconds, then said, “Just kidding,” and walked away. Nutjob.

      Of course, it all depends on the character’s voice and descriptive abilities. Take the sentence, “He looked sad.” In most cases, that could use a spruce, but if the main character is an adult with the mind of a 6-year-old, it’s perfectly appropriate, and even emotional in the right context.

      Those are my thoughts, but I’m curious what you and others think.

      1. I’ve found trouble when a first-person character is in a tight spot, e.g. with a restricted view of the action, and the text starts filling up with “I noticed…” and “I leaned over to see…” I want to edit all that out to keep the action moving forward tightly, but then have second thoughts, because I think the reader will wonder how the character can be aware of those things when he/she is in such a tight spot. It’s a tricky balance.

    1. I think Cormac McCarthy (fellow Knoxvillian!) does it, too, only differently. Instead of spicing up the flat sentences, he jams all the tells and minutiae into one long sentence that reads like a quick pan of a movie camera. It’s a different kind of experience for the reader, but it’s still participatory and draws them into his stories.

  2. Wow, Krista. This was a great post. So many posts will say, Show don’t tell, and rarely get into specific examples. Sometimes I need to glance at an example to get my frame of mind in the right place. This is going into a word document to refer back to for just that purpose.

  3. Really good, Krista, I found your opening analogy particularly funny, and right on the money. It’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees; ‘show, don’t tell!’ I don’t think I’ve seen it explained better.

    Excellent post, Krista.

  4. Not being an author, I’ve been slightly woolly-headed about ‘Show and Tell’. I only know I’ve been a tad irked by what I now realise from this superb explanation was too much telling. I love it when I get those light-bulb moments.

    1. My light bulb moment came when my reader brain yelled at my writer brain, “I don’t want to see it; I want to feel it!” I dropped my pencil and thought ohhhhh, now I get it.

  5. I love posts like this. They make things nice and clear for a while for me until I go all fuzzy again. (Must lay off the wine gums.) Thank you for a very clear explanation. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    1. I felt exactly that way when I spent Saturday afternoon reading the Chicago Manual of Style as though it were a novel.. I thought, now I know it all! But merely two days later, I was thinking, hm…what did the CMOS say about….? And I don’t even drink!

  6. And one other way it can be helpful: with dialogue. In place of the endless “saids”, you can also show something about the character at the same time, a win-win:

    “What is this slop?” John rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I thought we were having pizza for dinner!”

  7. Thank you for this informative post. I’ve been trying to re-write a story for about three months but I am at a complete standstill because I don’t get the ‘show don’t tell’ thing. I will use your advice to re-write it for the twentieth time and hopefully ii will read a bit better this time.

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