Showing Telling

Show Not Tell

Telling uses exposition, summary, and blunt description to convey the plot of a story.

Showing uses actions, dialogue, interior monologues, body language, characterization, setting and other subtle writing tactics to pull readers into your story.

When to Use Showing

Emotions: Convey feelings through characters' actions, physical reactions, or interactions, rather than naming the emotion.

Sensations: Include sensory details (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound) to create a rich, immersive experience.

  • Vocals: Describe how something is said (tone, volume, pace) to imply the speaker's mood or intention.
  • Visuals: Paint a picture of scenes, objects, or characters with detailed descriptions to immerse the reader.
  • Face & Body: Use facial expressions and body language to reveal character traits or feelings.
  • Sounds: Use sounds of people, objects, movements etc.
  • Smells: Use smell to describe people, object, surroundings.  

Opinions: Present characters' thoughts or perspectives through their actions and dialogues, instead of direct statements.

Descriptions: Enhances storytelling by painting vivid pictures of worlds.


What Not To Do

Avoid Filler Words: They add no value and dilute the impact (e.g., very, really, just).

Skip Emotion & Sensation Verbs: Instead of saying "She felt sad," show it through her actions or expressions.

Steer Clear of Static Verbs: Choose dynamic verbs that imply action or change.


How to tell you're Telling:


If you give your readers conclusions, you are telling. To show, provide them with enough “evidence” so they can come to the conclusions themselves.

Telling: It was obvious that he was trying to pick a fight.
Showing: “What did you just say?” Snarling, he stepped forward, right into John’s space.


Abstract language

If you are using abstract, vague language, you are telling. Ask a simple question: Can you visualize what’s happening? Could you film it?

Telling: She checked the man’s vital status.
Showing: She bent and placed two fingers on his neck. A faint pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips.



If you sum up what happened, you’re telling. Sometimes, I come across a manuscript that reads like a synopsis and that sums up everything that is happening instead of showing it in actual scenes.

Telling: I found the body in the back of a tarp-covered truck.
Showing: I climbed onto the back of the truck and peeled back the tarp. A sickeningly sweet stench made me stumble back. Sightless eyes stared back at me. I pressed a hand to my mouth, smothering a scream.

Advice: If you’re not sure if you are showing detailed actions or summing them up, try to act out what your characters are doing. If you can’t, you’re telling. As you might have noticed, the previous example also makes good use of the senses, not just sight but also smell and sound (if you count the smothered scream).

Telling: The dog attacked. She tried to defend herself.

What exactly did the dog do? Jump? Bite? Growl? And how exactly did she defend herself? Kick the dog? Hide?

Showing: The dog leaped, canines bared. She threw up her arm to protect her throat.



If you report things that happened in the past, before this very moment, you are telling. A good indicator is using Past Perfect Tense ( had ).

Telling: I had tested the car to see if it would start. It didn’t.
Showing: I turned the key in the ignition. A click-click-click-click noise drifted up from the engine. I smashed my fist into the steering wheel. “Dammit!”


Adverbs ( —ly )

Whenever possible, cut the adverbs. 

Sometimes, the sentence is just fine without it; other times, you might want to rewrite the sentence and replace the weak verb/adverb combination with a stronger verb that makes the adverb unnecessary.

Telling: The dog tucked its tail between its legs and whined anxiously.
Showing: The dog tucked its tail between its legs and whined.

Telling: “Don’t lie to me,” she shouted angrily.
Showing: “Don’t lie to me, dammit.” She slammed her palm on the table.

Telling: Tina slowly walked down the street.
Showing: Tina strolled down the street.



Like adverbs, adjectives can also be telling, especially if they are abstract adjectives such as 'interesting' or 'beautiful.'

Telling: I was afraid.
Showing: Oh God, oh God, oh God. My knees felt like squishy sponges as I fled down the stairs.


Linking verbs

Linking verbs are verbs that connect a subject with an adjective or noun. Examples are was/were, is/are, felt, appeared, seemed, looked. 

Replace most of them with more active verbs.

Telling: It was cold.
Showing: She breathed into her hands to warm her numb fingers.

Telling: Tina felt tired.
Showing: She rubbed her eyes.

Telling: Tina seemed impressed.
Showing: Tina’s eyes widened, and her lips formed a silent, “Wow!”

Telling: Tina looked as if she was going to cry.
Showing: Tina’s bottom lip started to quiver.


Emotion words

When you’re naming emotions, you are telling. For emotion words, type in the noun, adjective, and adverb form of emotions such as anger, angry, and angrily.

Instead of naming emotions, use actions, thoughts, visceral reactions, and body language to show what your characters are feeling. 

Telling: When John left, Betty and Tina were relieved.
Showing: When the door closed behind John, Betty wiped her brow and Tina exhaled the breath she’d been holding.



Filter words are verbs that describe the character perceiving or thinking something, for example, saw, smelled, heard, felt, watched, noticed, realized, wondered, and knew.

So, cut out the “she realized” and “he saw” and make the sentence just about the thing she realized or the sound he heard.

Telling: Tina heard Betty suck in a breath.
Showing: Betty sucked in a breath.

Telling: Tina realized she had lost her keys.
Showing: Tina patted her pockets. Nothing. Oh shit. Where were her keys?


Turning Tell into Show: Strategies

So how do you turn a tell into a show?  Here are four great strategies:

Use the Five Senses

Describe using all five senses to create a full experience. Describe how something sees, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels

Example: I stuck my nose out of the car’s open window and breathed in the fresh pine scent. The cold air made my cheeks burn and my eyes tear.

Use strong, dynamic verbs

Replace generic verbs with vivid, specific ones (e.g., replace "walked" with "sauntered" or "ambled", "strode", "trudged", "strutted, "tiptoed").

Keep on the lookout for weak verbs—usually all forms of to be, started to and began to (including the overused there was and there were ) and to have —and replace them with verbs that paint a clearer picture in the reader’s mind.

Be Specific and Descriptive - Use concrete nouns

Try to be as specific as possible rather than using generic terms. Use detailed nouns and clear adjectives to create vivid images (e.g., "a cinnamon-apple pie with a golden crust" instead of "Grandma baked a pie").

Telling: Tina lived in a big house.
Showing: Tina’s steps echoed across the foyer as she entered the mansion.


Utilize Dialogue when Showing others

Show emotions and intentions through what characters say and how they say it. 

Telling: Mom was angry.
Showing: “Don’t you walk out of here!” Mom yelled.

Telling: Tina was a flirt.
Showing: “Well, hello,” Tina drawled. “The view in here just got a lot better.”

Use Internal Monologue when Showing POV

Telling: I was relieved when my workday ended.
Showing: Finally, the bell rang, announcing the end of my workday. Thank the Lord.


Focus on Actions and Reactions

Instead of telling your readers about your characters’ personality traits, let them get to know the characters through their actions.

Telling: Tina was a loyal friend. She always helped out whenever one of her acquaintances or family members needed her.
Showing: “Come on.” Tina patted her shoulder. “Assembling the furniture won’t be that bad. You know what they say about many hands.” She picked up the screwdriver.

Telling: Jake had always been a little clumsy.
Showing: When he reached out to pick up the saltshaker, he knocked over his wineglass.


Through Actions

Characters' actions can subtly reveal their emotional state without a single word about their feelings being mentioned.

Example 1: John paced back and forth, his movements quick and erratic.

Example 2: Mary kept folding and unfolding the napkin in her lap, her gaze fixed on a point somewhere beyond the room.

Telling: Betty was elated.
Showing: Betty twirled, her arms spread wide as if to hug the entire world.

Telling: She was ashamed of her knobby knees.
Showing: She lowered her lashes and tugged her skirt over her knobby knees.

Telling: I looked at Betty with annoyance.
Showing: I glared at Betty.

Through Emotive Dialogue

Make sure you use dialogue to reveal what your characters are feeling. It’s a strong tool, since dialogue can—literally—speak for itself. If your characters are tense or angry, let them speak in shorter sentences and use words with harder sounds. If they are playful or in a reflective mood, make their sentences and words longer. And if your characters are nervous, they could stutter.

Telling: I was so angry at John.
Showing: I smashed my fist onto the desk. “Goddammit, John!”

Telling: She waited impatiently.
Showing: She tapped her foot. “Come on. I’m not getting any younger here.”


When writing dialogue, also don’t forget to describe how your characters sound every now and then, but please don’t resort to using adverbs and adjectives to do that.

Telling: “Space?” her mother repeated dejectedly. “From…from me?”
Showing: “Space?” Her mother sounded as if she’d slapped her. “From…from me?”

Through Facial Expressions

Use facial ticks to convey the emotion that the character is feeling.


Through Body Reactions

Use Body Reactions to show emotions. Emotions always trigger physical responses. When we are afraid, our hearts start racing, our palms become sweaty, and our muscles tense.

Telling: I was afraid.
Showing: Tremors wracked my body, and cold sweat trickled down my back.

Telling: She was angry.
Showing: Veins throbbed in her temples.

Through Internal Monologue

Set off by italics, First Person, and Present Tense.

Telling: She was confused.
Showing (indirect internal monologue): What the hell was going on?

Telling: She tried hard to hide how jealous she was of her brother.
Showing (direct internal monologue): She struggled to keep her face expressionless as her father patted Tom’s shoulder. Yeah, of course, Daddy’s golden child can do no wrong.

Through Setting Descriptions

The words you choose to describe a setting from a character’s point of view can reveal a lot about what kind of mood he or she is in. The same setting can be seen in a different light, depending on what mood the POV character is in.

Telling: It rained heavily.
Showing (revealing an upbeat mood): Raindrops danced along the windowpane.
Showing (revealing a pessimistic mood): Rain lashed against the window.

Through The Five Senses 

In moments of heightened emotion, our senses can also become heightened, so we’re suddenly hyperaware of sounds or smells, for example.

Telling: Afraid of whoever was following me, I walked faster.
Showing: Footsteps echoed behind me, and the stench of stale beer hit my nose. I walked faster.

Through Figurative Language ( Metaphors, Similes )

Metaphors, similes, and other imagery can also be an effective way to reveal character emotions.

Telling: She stared at him aggressively.
Showing: She stared at him like a prizefighter sizing up an opponent.



Use of Descriptive Language

Descriptive language enhances emotive writing by painting a vivid picture of the characters’ internal and external worlds.

Example 1: John's voice was like thunder, echoing off the walls with unchecked fury.

Example 2: Mary walked through the day in a haze, the world around her gray and dull, as if the color had drained away with her happiness.


Examples of Show vs. Tell

Telling: John was sad to see his girlfriend leave.
Showing: John wiped tears down his face as he watched his girlfriend board the plane.


Telling: The house was creepy.
Showing: Only a single dim candle lit the room. The house smelled like dust and rotting wood, and something faintly metallic that made John think of blood. Stuffed animals were mounted around the room: a wild-eyed buck, a grizzly frozen in fury, a screech owl with sharp yellow talons.

Telling: ‘I walked by the side of the road. It was the middle of winter, and it was getting late.’
Showing: ‘I almost slipped on the icy pavement as I made my way down the street. The cold air seemed to intensify as the weak sun dipped below the horizon.’


Telling: She was cold.
Showing: Her teeth chattered as she blew on her fingers.


Telling: It was hot outside.
Showing: Heat sizzled from the pavement. She wiped her sweaty brow and tried not to gag at the stench of rotting garbage on the sidewalks.


Telling: He looked tired.
Showing: He slumped into his chair. His eyelids drooped, and his chin sank on his chest.


Telling: She was overweight.
Showing: As she heaved herself up from her chair, Jake halfway expected to hear a groan of relief from the piece of furniture.


Telling: The house was run-down.
Showing: Paint flaked from the walls. Weeds had taken over the cracks in the driveway. The smell of mildew, mold, and urine filled Tina’s nostrils as she stepped over broken glass.


Telling: It was a dark and stormy night.
Showing: The wind rattled the shutters and hurled rain from the night sky.


Telling: She seemed uncomfortable.
Showing: She slid to the edge of her seat and shuffled her feet beneath the table.


Telling: I felt relieved.
Showing: The tension in my shoulders eased.


Telling: He was helpless.
Showing: He rubbed his temples. What was he supposed to do now?


Telling: It was raining as she drove.
Showing: Rain drummed on the windshield and the Honda’s roof, drowning out the hum of the engine.


Telling: I ate dinner.
Showing: I cut into her juicy steak. The scent of herb butter teased my nose.


Telling: The pizza looked delicious, but it tasted horrible.
Showing: Steam rising up off the melted cheese made his mouth water. He picked up a slice and took a huge bite. A bitter taste spread across his tongue. Ugh. Dammit. Who the hell had put olives on his pizza?


Telling: I was jealous of my neighbor’s new car.
Showing: I trailed my fingertips over the gleaming hood of John’s jaguar. It was warm and sleek to the touch. My other hand clenched around my keys, the hard edges digging into my fingers as I wrestled down the urge to scratch the polished surface.


Telling: She was afraid.
Showing: She wrapped her arms around herself and wiped her palms, wet with perspiration, on the back of her shirt.


Telling: She was curious.
Showing: She tilted her head to the side and waved her hand in a gimme motion. “Come on. Tell me!”


Telling: Tina was a spoiled child.
Showing: Tina threw herself on the floor and flailed her arms and legs. “I want it! I want it! I want it!”


Telling: When her brother refused to give her the book, she became angry.
Showing: Blood roared in her ears. She thrust her chin forward. “If you don’t give me that damn book back, I’ll kill you.”


Telling: Satisfied that everything was packed, Tina grabbed her bag.
Showing: Great. Everything was packed. Tina grabbed her bag.


Telling: The view over the entire city was soothing.
Showing: Tina gripped the balustrade. A grid of lights stretched out as far as she could see, and the miniature shapes of skyscrapers in the distance reminded her that life went on for millions of people. It would go on for her too. Her death grip on the balustrade eased.


Telling: The cabin was romantic.
Showing: The flames in the wood-burning fireplace crackled. The moon shone down on them through the skylight in the cross-beam ceiling.

Telling words to watch out for:


Example Sentence: Maisey flashed a wide grin at Ben, obviously finding his joke funny.

Why it’s telling: In this case, we have an example of “over-telling.” The writer has actually done an okay job showing us that Maisey found the joke funny—a wide grin is an expression that suggests she found his comment humorous. Everything that follows the comma is unnecessary. 


Example Sentence: I told Layla the truth about everything—even about her father’s true identity.

Why it’s telling: Not surprisingly, the verb “to tell” can be an indicator of too much telling. Sometimes, it’s necessary to summarize dialogue that isn’t vital to the plot or to recap information the reader already has. Other times, though, summarizing dialogue is a lazy way of “telling” something rather than showing a conversation.

Pretty Language

Example Sentence: Keith felt a wave of despair wash over him as he watched the key disappear into the water.

Why it’s telling: Sometimes telling likes to cloak itself in pretty language. This may not seem like an example of telling, because of the florid language—despair “washing over” the character—does paint a bit of a picture. However, the author is still coming out and telling us exactly how Keith felt, rather than giving us visual or internal clues.