A Return to Show, Don’t Tell

Now…. let me see…. where were we?

(sound of foot tapping – or is it a pencil?) You were going to explain about how you show, don’t tell your story.

I was?

Oh for heaven’s sake, will you get on with I? I’ve been waiting weeks!

Not possible. It’s  only been days since I posted the first part. You can re-read it if you want.

(grumble) I suppose it hasn’t been that long, but you sort of left us hanging, you know.

Well, I hope you got some writing done while you were waiting.

No, I was waiting to see what you had to say.

Ohh! Well, as flattering as that is, you should have used your time to get something done on your writing project. You can’t depend on me – or others – for whether or not you write. But that’s another topic. About showing your reader, I think I said, you need to get out —

Out of the reader’s eye.

Close. You have to get out of the reader’s way. And we do that through the use of active verbs, dialogue, good word choice and being in the moment of the story.

For instance, my son (continuing our discussion of  Altered Carbon*) said they introduced new technology in the story, a communications device called an ‘ONI’  that worked with an attachment on the back of  the hand (for sound) and some way of seeing the image displayed directly on the eyeball. They could – even on video but definitely in print – have had the character stop to recall the invention, who invented it, how the device was first used and received by the public, how popular it was, and how it gets implanted to some colleague or other. This would delay the story, and all to let the reader understand how clever the writer was to have made it up.

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Well, that’s what we do, isn’t? All that information may let your reader know about technology  in the time of your  story, but it really serves to let you step in, thumbs behind the suspenders, chest puffed out in pride about your brilliant world-building. All you need is for your character to make what amounts to a phone call, probably to convey an essential fact to the investigator at the other end of the call, and do it in a way that is pertinent to the times. That alone reinforces what this world looks like, and the content discussed (done right) advances the story.

But you, the writer, need to set yourself down and get out of the way. The writers and actors and directors at Altered Carbon did this by showing, without commentary, the ONI being used as a communications device. Technological changes and additions are germane to the plot and premise of this show, but sharing them is accomplished far better by  demonstration over description. You don’t bore your reader. In fact, you draw them further into the story.

Okay, I get the idea. But how do you make it happen?

If I said it’s done with words, you’d make fun of me, but that is really it. Words selected with care, and with an eye to pace, energy, and exactitude. Precisely chosen words used with economy and without an excess of qualifiers tighten your writing and keep you invisible to the reader.

This is the very reason writers are told to avoid adverbs and passive structure. Read your manuscripts carefully and find ways to excise (okay, I know I’m on an ‘e’ roll) extra words. Especially words you use repeatedly. Delete ‘small’ for the more precise ‘tiny’, ‘minute’, ‘compact’, or ‘dainty’, each of whose meanings convey something more than mere size. Drop words such as ‘very’ or ‘just’, which only confer shades of emphasis; employ single words that don’t require modifiers. And be tough on your writing. You want it to be the best it can be.

All right, I can see that. Makes it a lot of work, though.

(stern voice) No one wants to turn in sloppy work that isn’t one’s best. The time and trouble is worth it.

Can you give us some more hints? You’ve talked about words. What about actions? You say that we should use actions to show things. How can actions show something like appearance – or emotions?

Granted description is a little tricky to do in terms of action. Unless, of course, you choose to drop in ‘black, curly hair tangled  by the wind as she loped across the field’, or some such. Emotions, actually are easier.


Emotions tend to cause us to move or talk or make faces. Specific actions can be associated with specific emotions. There’s a wonderful book out, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, called The Emotion Thesaurus, which categorizes emotions and the physical actions that accompany them. So, you can look up an emotion and see possibilities for how your character might behave.

Example (found on pages 48-49):

They define Depression as ‘extreme sadness and reduced vitality’ with Physical Signals (their term) of ‘staring down at one’s hands’ or having poor eating habits. Internal Sensations include a slow pulse or shallow breathing, and Mental Responses might include an inability to concentrate or ‘bleak observations about the world’.  It’s true these read a little like a list of symptoms, but can you ask for a better way to SHOW this emotion?


The next move is to come up with a way to use this. Maybe in conversation, your character can’t focus. Or he keeps complaining in dark ways with words out of proportion to the situation. Or, while staring at her hands at the dinner table, she only  picks at her food and then leaves the table. (ah, a 2-fer1 there!). These all make for greater entertainment than writing “Billie was depressed.” The pictures draw the reader into the story. The writer fades from view, and now the reader is part of that world. That is what you are striving for as a writer.

You’ve spent a lot of time creating the world of your story. You want your reader to enjoy their time there. And you want them to visit your world(s) again.

So keep showing. Don’t just tell.




*A word to the wise, Altered Carbon isn’t ‘just’ a TV show. It’s based on a book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan published in 2002 and awarded the Philip K. Dick Award in 2003. Might want to check out how  he did it.


Show, Don’t Tell …


…What does that even mean?

The other night my son and I were discussing a Netflix show he was watching,  Altered Carbon, a new show classified as neo-noir. While some of it was good, he’d realized he had finally identified what wasn’t working for it.

First off, there was a lack of nuance in it. Emotionally-speaking there were no gray areas. Two things in the show’s world – religion and elitism – were written as bad, equally bad, with no mitigating circumstances for anything. This moral code seemed to come from the writers’ POV, rather than arising organically from the world they’d created. The show was okay, he said, but we agreed it had no place no place to go, no depth as it is currently conceived.

He did note, however, that the writing was quite good in some places, and that there were scenes where they did an excellent job of showing the story without a lot of exposition. Which, he said, is natural, because it’s visual media, not written.

Which brought us to the topic above.

By the time many writers realize they are serious about their art and write to actually get published, they are scurrying – rightfully – from workshop to conference to writers group for advice. Often-times in critiques they’ll be advised “And of course, always show, don’t tell” in a casual sort of way. Longtime writers forget that this short-hand expression they throw about is a trick phrase that new writers will nod their heads to without ever understanding how to do it. I’ve seen many a newbie struggle with the concept. Especially people who know how to communicate and are successful in other areas of their lives. They feel it can’t be anything too far beyond their reach. But ‘show don’t tell’  is not the obvious command veterans take it for.

So, I say, let’s dissect it.


Good. I’m writing words for heaven’s sake. How do I show anything when I’m not using pictures?

Hello? Oh, it’s you.

Yes, it’s me. How the heck am I supposed to ‘show’ something when I’m writing? It’s letters, it’s words. It’s me telling you a story in your head. I can’t show you pictures. You read chapter books!

Calm down; you’re overheating. You’re right, of course. We’re using words, and readers usually do hear a voice in their heads, so  essentially we are telling them the whole thing. But you’ve heard of painting pictures with words, right? You can make people see pictures in their heads.


I get the same response whether the listener is 8 or 68. If they  haven’t been writing for long, or more, if they haven’t read a book in a long time, people forget what it’s like. They think of the literal act of reading instead of the feeling of reading. Now, follow me here. If you read, say, a textbook, what happens?

I fall asleep.

No doubt you do. Processing information from a textbook is simply processing facts, information. There is no emotion to feel or environment to sense. The writer doesn’t much care whether you’re entertained or not, he or she just wants to make sure they give you all you need  to know. You, as a reader, are not trying to feel emotions of a conflicted hero or the broiling sun on his face, you are not trying to be a part of the person’s life. You are not trying to be in their picture. But in fiction, that is exactly what is happening. The writer  (a good writer) appeals to all your  senses to make you feel like you are in the middle of the story yourself.

The only way to do that is to convey the story by showing you what is happening, not just telling you.

All right, all right. HOW do you do that? How do you show, not tell?

You  – the writer – do it by getting out of the way of the reader. And, as our time is up for now, we’ll discuss this further next time.

Wait? What? Aaarghg! You can’t do this!

Well, – I  – nope. I’m on a  schedule. Next part, next time. But we’ll finish then, I promise.