What is Show Don’t Tell?

Ah, yes, the most overused piece of writing advice out there. But what does “Show Don’t Tell” actually mean? And how can you use this to strengthen your writing?  

Generally, “telling” is exposition where the reader is told what is happening. The reader knows the facts of what happened or how it made a character feel, but they aren’t experiencing it alongside the character.

“Showing” allows the reader to be immersed in the story and experience it alongside the character. It allows the reader to draw conclusions and results in a deeper connection with the story.

Telling has its place. Telling can get your reader to the place they need to be in the scene or summarize when an action isn’t important. Interspersing telling with showing prevents the reader from being exhausted by constant showing. (Yes, there can be too much of a good thing!) 

But showing is a powerful technique for vivid writing when used correctly.  

Image by Michael Ross from Pixabay

How do you know when you’re telling?  

My favorite piece of writing advice about Show Don’t Tell comes from Britt Malka in her Show Don’t Tell Drills Forum: Can you act out what is being said? If you have to add gestures, you’re probably telling.  

For example,  

Hermione grabbed her new wand and placed it carefully in her book bag.  

Try acting it out. How would you show that the wand was new? What does carefully look like? 

Image by Victoria Model from Pixabay

We can rewrite this so that we are showing, rather than telling: 

Hermione grabbed the wand, admiring how the light caught on the polished vine wood. Balancing it between her fingers, she wrapped it in her scarf and slipped it into her book bag. 

Words that Might Indicate Telling and How to Fix Them 

We can also pay attention to specific words in our writing that might indicate when we are telling rather than showing.   


Adverbs, by definition, describe a verb. They tell us how an action is being performed.

The dog ate lazily. 

How can we show that? Describe the behavior of the character.

For example:

The dog laid on the floor and flopped his tongue into the food bowl, picking at the kibbles. 


Adjectives describe a noun. The new wand with Hermione is an example of an adjective describing an object. Can you show rather than tell?  


The word “was” or “is” are often indicators of telling. Because they tell the reader what something is rather than showing it and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

The room was cold.

Can show that the room is cold? Is your character shivering? Do they hold their coat closed? Tuck their chin into a scarf? Get creative.


“To” tells the character’s intentions and only works if we are in that character’s first person POV.

He reached out his hand to check if the heater was working.
He reached towards the heater, letting the air blow onto his skin. "Still cold!"

*”To” isn’t telling if you are in the first person POV in which case, the reader could know the character’s intentions.


She ducked into the closet seconds before he entered the room. 

The POV character doesn’t know what was going to happen “before” so this is the author telling the reader what was about to happen rather than writing in “real-time.”

She ducked into the closet and held her breath. As she slid the closest closed, the door of the bedroom creaked open. “Hello? Are you in here?” 


Trystan tried to start a fire.  

Is he starting the fire or what is he actually doing? Show me!  

Trystan dumped the rest of the lighter fluid on the grimoire and grabbed the matchbook from his pocket. With the rasp of the match, he held a flame over the oil-soaked book. “This is the last time you will screw up my life,” he said.  

Filter words 

I mentioned filtering in my previous blog post about how to tighten your prose. Filtering refers to phrases such as “I heard,” “I saw,” “I felt,” “I smelled,” and “I tasted.” They tell the reader what the protagonist is doing rather than showing the action. For example:

I tasted the orange.

This is telling the reader what the character is doing, but it could be shown as:

I bit into the orange and the juicy citrus tang hit my tongue.

And yes, that’s probably overkill for the taste of an orange but you get the idea.   

Emotion tells 

Emotion tells are one of the easiest to find but can be complex to fix.

He was angry.


He screamed in terror.

To fix emotion tells, use the character’s body language and senses to show how they are feeling. A great resource to help with this is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

For example:

He clenched his fists as a bead of sweat dripped down his reddening face.  


He screamed and stepped back, ice gripping his limbs as he tensed. 

Final Thoughts 

Look for areas in your writing where you might be telling instead of showing. Would it make the scene more vivid if you were to show that section instead? Showing can be overdone, but when used correctly, it can make your writing sing.

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