Show, Don't--Don't Tell Me You're Saying That Again!

Show, Don't Tell

A.K.A. that expression that makes you want to curl into a ball and die

That makes me smile.


Hello, pathetic humans. Heard that phrase before? I bet you have, either from an old English teacher squinting her eyes and jabbing her finger at your less than stellar writing assignment back in fourth grade, or in the colorful bubbles on Microsoft Word with your CPs' comments on your latest piece.

Some people hate hearing this phrase. Maybe that's why I like it. But aside from tormenting others, I don't think this phrase has gone out of style.


Telling: When you tell your readers the emotions of your character (It might not be for emotions, but that is generally where I see the most telling in human manuscripts). 

Showing: Using body language and other descriptions to convey the emotions of your character, without explicitly stating what those emotions are.

Dissection (My favorite)

This is a telling phrase. I will list the reasons why below.
"Are you ready to go yet? My stomach's more shriveled than a prune," Tom grumbled impatiently.
Reason #1: Impatiently

As a rule of thumb, adverbs are generally HUGE BLINKY LIGHTS (to use Amanda's middle school language arts teacher's phrase) of telling. An easy way to flush out telling is to scrap your adverbs.

Reason #2: Grumbled

Not in all cases, but in this one (I wrote that particular example to illustrate this case), but grumbled is telling. Why? Well, you're telling your reader that Tom grumbled. I know what you're thinking, human. You're thinking Well, he is grumbling, and it's a perfectly great instance to use grumbled!

Think again. Start with looking at the dialogue, the strongest part of any scene. By the words Tom uses, the reader won't think he's giggling or screaming. The dialogue conveyed his emotion. Sure, perhaps without the grumbled, the reader might think he's sighing, whining, etc. But from 1) the reader's knowledge of this character, and 2) the rest of the scene, his tone will be conveyed without the telling. Use said. Always try for said.

This is an article I found, for further reference. Click the Pic.

How to Show, Not Tell

Option #1: Convey the emotion through the words of the dialogue.

Personally (and as your future supreme ruler, I'm infallible), this is your best option, assuming your scene does have dialogue. Think about it: when you read, your eyes are drawn to those quotation marks. Dialogue is what keeps the scene moving. It instigates. It conflicts. It forces characters to go from point A to point B in a conversation. 

How to Do It: Go through the dialogue and ask yourself whether the words are conveying the emotion. Is it obvious how the character is speaking or feels by what he/she's saying? If not, and you find yourself relying on telling, change his/her words.

Option #2: Body Language

My creative writing professor loves to tell us that human communication is mostly body language, tone, and, at the very minimum, the words you (I'm not human. Don't lump me in your petty species.) say. 

How to Do It
  • Facial expressions are good. Smiling, smirking, scowling. Raising eyebrows. Narrowing eyes. Pursing lips. Remember not to overdo them, though. I know writers (including me), have a particular few facial expression they use as crutches. 
  • Body language (I know it's the overall category, but I can't think of a more specific term) is also great. A girl twirling her hair. Crossing her arms. Always looking at the boy's lips, who sits across from her at the diner, slumped and staring at his mug of decaffeinated coffee. 
  • Props: This is often overlooked, but props are GREAT for conveying emotion. Let's move that girl and boy to a fancy restaurant. The girl swirls her index finger around the rim of her wine glass and barely touches her lemon-and-garlic-smeared salmon. The boy stabs his steak with his fork and drops his utensils on his plate after each bite so they clatter. 
Option #3: Descriptive Details

The other place that I looked over is telling in general narrative, though that is often super common. Here is an example of descriptive telling:
"The party was loud and out of control."

How to Do It:

Well, here's an example of conveying that telling phrase above:

"She squinted her eyes into the strobe light and squirmed her way through the crowd of sweaty bodies. Their B.O. made her crinkle her nose. The dubstep music pounded in her chest. Boom. Boom. Boom. The beats echoed in her ribs, overpowering the beats of her heart. She scampered out of the crowd. Stood next to the amp. Shivered despite the heat. The boy next to her clutched a red solo cup filled to the brim with something dark and fizzy, which he then spilled all over her white tank top when he tripped on the amp's cords snaking around their feet. He mumbled something. She couldn't hear."
Note: That was written in a hurry, and even for me, Loki, consider that a first draft version of showing. Please don't push your glasses up her nose, sniffle, and critique my writing. (I don't, but sometimes Amanda gets all insecure about such things.)

- - - 

And there you go, humans. That is what people mean when they say show, don't tell. Hopefully I've given some reasonable tips about how to avoid this common human error. If you have suggestions/questions/glorified praise/other comments, feel welcome to post them below!

- Loki


  1. Love this post! Will bookmark it for reference later.

  2. My favourite exercise to practise 'showing' is to watch a scene from TV and work out how I would write it. Because all emotions and thoughts have to be SHOWN in TV, it's a great way to work out how one would convey the same sense visually as in writing. (Also, watching film adaptations and then looking at the original text works too.)

    1. That's a great idea! Never thought of that. Definitely will think about that when getting rid of my 'telling.'