Four Techniques to Show Rather than Tell

Showing Vs. Telling in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

You’ve heard the advice show, don’t tell until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet all of us still seem to struggle with it. I think that’s often because we need a few practical things we can do to identify where we might be telling rather than showing.

If you’ve ever been accused of telling or you just want to make sure you’ve eliminated unnecessary telling from your work in progress, check for these four telling offenders. (There are more than four, but four is what I can fit in a blog post of a reasonable length.)

Naming Emotions

He was angry. She felt guilty. He hated her.

All of these tell the reader about the emotion rather than showing them. Telling emotion keeps the reader at arm’s length rather than letting them experience the emotions along with the character.

Telling: Jennifer was sad because of the death of her daughter.

Showing: Jennifer stood face to face with the delicate porcelain doll Ellie idolized too much to even play with. The doll stared back, her face held in an immortal smile, mocking. No doll deserved to live longer than the little girl who owned her. Jennifer snatched the doll from the shelf and heaved her toward the far wall. The doll’s head exploded like fireworks.

Most emotions in life are nuanced. Telling allows you to convey only the most basic part of the emotion, whereas showing allows you to bring out all the facets. In the example above, Jennifer isn’t just sad. She’s also angry, maybe even a little bitter. That’s very different from a character who is sad and guilty, or a character who is sad…but also a little bit relieved. You lose meaning when you tell rather than show emotion. (Click here to read more about How to Show Character Emotions.)

Showing does force you to do more work in figuring out the layers of emotion your character is feeling, but the result is well worth it.

A tool I recommend for finding ways to show emotions through body language (instead of labeling those emotions) is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Special Editing Tip: If you think this might be a problem for you, make a list of every emotion you can think of and use the “Find” feature of your word processing program to run a search for those words. You’ll quickly see if you’ve been naming emotions and where you need to fix it.

Descriptive Dialogue Tags

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) a sentence, you’re violating the “show don’t tell” principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. If you feel like you need to use a tag other than said, asked, and occasionally, whispered or shouted for the reader to understand your meaning, you need to rewrite your dialogue and the beats around it to make it stronger and clearer.

Even if you use asked or said, you might still be telling if you tack on adverbs. (An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.)

She said sadly. He asked sulkily. She said angrily

Telling: “Are you sure he escaped?” Annabelle asked anxiously.

Showing: “What do you mean he might have escaped?” Annabelle’s gaze darted to the door, and she chewed the edge of her thumb nail. “He either did or he didn’t. Which is it?”

Explaining Motivations By Using “To”

We each have our private writing demons, and this is mine. If I’m going to fall prey to a telling sin, it will be this one.

Telling: She grabbed her bow to shoot the deer. The arrow arced through the air, and lodged in the animal’s throat. It sank to its knees. Dinner was served.

Most of this is showing. Except for the part underlined and bolded. The problem is we don’t actually see her shoot. We’re told why she grabbed her bow, and then the arrow is flying, but we’ve skipped the part when she fires the shot.

Showing: She grabbed her bow, aimed for the deer’s heart, and released the string. The arrow arced through the air, and lodged in the animal’s throat. It sank to its knees. Dinner was served.

I’ll give you another example.

Telling: Elizabeth went to the woodshed to get the ax. She swung with all her strength and cleaved the stump in two.

It feels strange because Elizabeth goes to the woodshed, but then the next thing we know she’s swinging the ax at the stump.

Showing: Elizabeth went to the woodshed, and yanked the ax from where it hung on the wall. She stormed back to the stump, ignoring George’s I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk. She swung with all her strength and cleaved the stump in two. Take that, George. She didn’t need any man’s help to survive.

You don’t need to do a blow by blow of every step your character takes, but removing the to construct forces you to think about a passage, and find deeper, more engaging ways to convey what’s happening.

Linking Verbs

We want to avoid linking verbs like was and is in favor of stronger, more active verbs, but we also want to avoid them because they can indicate telling rather than showing.

Telling: She was ugly.

Showing: Richard couldn’t stop himself from staring at the button-sized wart in the middle of her forehead. Even if she didn’t want it removed, couldn’t she have at least plucked the hair?

One or two carefully selected details will dynamically show us that a person is old or ugly, cruel or a flirt. Moreover, showing also gives us insight into the point of view character. What our characters notice and how they choose to describe it says a lot about them.

But won’t showing make our writing wordy?

No, not necessarily. Tight writing has less to do with the number of words used and more to do with making every word count. (Click here if you’d like to tweet that.)

Next week I’m going to look at when we should save the words and tell rather than show.

What other ways have you found to eliminate telling in your writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” button.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

Image Credit: Bartek Ambrozik (via