Show, Don’t Tell

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is often referred to as the Golden Rule of writing fiction–one of the most important rules for all new writers to learn and follow.

Simply put, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ means to use words that allow the reader to experience the story through the character’s actions, dialogue, facial expressions, or through specific details rather than tell the reader what to believe.  Put another way, “telling” gives the reader a bird’s eye view.  “Showing” draws the reader right into the scene you’ve created.

Related to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is ‘Resist the Urge to Explain’ (RUE).  Scenes and dialogue should be strong enough so that the reader needs no further explanation.

I can best explain by way of examples.

Telling – He was really tired.

Showing – He slouched way down in the recliner, his eyes struggling to stay open, his hand gradually losing its grip on the Miller Light.

Telling – She was scared.

Showing – Her heart pounded high in her chest, and blood surged through her veins like molten lava.

Telling – She was surprised at his remark.

Showing – She jumped up from the kitchen chair.  Her eyes widened, and a full smile quickly burst across her face.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Telling – The boat sank.

Showing – The 100-ton schooner took on scads of water through the massive hole in its starboard side, its rear mast the first to disappear beneath the shimmering surface of the deep blue water, all items sliding off the deck one at a time until there was nothing left but that which was attached, including the five-man crew.

Okay, so the last one is a bit overdone (you think?), but you get the idea.  Here are some ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ tips I learned along the way.

  • You don’t always have to ‘show.’  Some details just aren’t important and can actually bog down the story.  If they don’t move the story forward, you should omit them.
  • To liven up a flat ‘tell’ sentence, try incorporating one or more of the five senses into it.  See, hear, touch, smell and taste.
  • Never do both, i.e., don’t tell the reader what the action is and then show him.  Example: She was surprised to see him there.  “What is he doing here?” she shouted.
  • A successful ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ will make the reader feel like he is inside the character’s head and will know from that perspective what’s going on in there.
  • If you’re using too many of these words, you might be ‘telling’ more than you should  —  is, was, were, has, had, have, saw, thought and felt.
  • Look for facts in your manuscript and replace them with action where appropriate.
  • Look for long passages where there’s no action or dialogue.  This may be a good place to replace it with a scene.

For more information about author, Florence Osmund, go to


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