Show, Don’t Tell: Your Frame-Worthy Mini-Guide (With 17 Examples)

Show, Don’t Tell: Your Frame-Worthy Mini-Guide (With 17 Examples)

98 Remarkable Comments

Let’s say you had a stressful day.

You tell it to your friend on the phone. You say: “I had a stressful day.”

He says: “Oh, I’m sorry.”

But somehow you can’t help but feel that he hasn’t grasped the magnitude of the teeth-crumbling, nerve-shredding course of your day.

It’s only natural he doesn’t know. He hasn’t seen you driving slaloms through rush hour traffic, one finger on the steering wheel, while arranging appointments on the cell phone, and wrapping a birthday present with your left toe. He hasn’t seen you creeping in through the front door on your gums at 11 PM, loaded with papers and shopping bags.

He was told how you feel, not shown. “Stressful” is an abstract word. And we only fully experience things we are shown.

Another example: The other day on the radio, I heard that “two people were killed in a car accident.”

Did I feel for these poor people?

If I’m honest, not at all. They were just news on the radio. I was just given a piece of information. When we are told a summary, we don’t feel in our guts what happened. That’s just human nature.

But what if I had witnessed their car crash, seeing their blood and their skulls cracked open, hearing their screams? What if I had been talking to their crying families? Would I have felt for them then?

You bet, I would have felt for them more than you can imagine.

You can’t imagine right now, because I just told you, I didn’t show you. I would have tears streaming down my cheeks. There, now I showed you.

Excuse my macabre and extreme example taken from our media-filtered reality. But such is the power of ‘Show, don’t tell’!

And when narrating your stories, you should use it to your advantage.

When you just tell somebody, you are taking away from them experiencing your scene. They might as well read an instruction manual.

‘Telling’ is like a big neon sign. It’s the most obvious clue you are reading an amateurish, unexperienced writer. Don’t do it!

So in honor of showing, this post will lay out for you how exactly you can use the good, old ‘Show, don’t tell’ to create unforgettable stories. In this post, find the answers to the following questions:

  • Why are you always tempted to ‘tell’?
  • Which words are strong indicators that you are ‘telling’?
  • Which tricks can you employ to avoid ‘telling’?
  • You will also get lots and lots of examples, so ‘Show, don’t tell’ will become engrained in your DNA by the time you finish this post…

Like always, I also have a little gift for you:

Show Don’t Tell Worksheet

This worksheet summarizes the most important points of the post. Keep it at your desk while you are writing, so it can remind you at all times to ‘Show, don’t tell.’

You will also get some exercises to sharpen your showing skills. Print out, and use for all of your future stories:

Show Don't Tell: Your Cheat Sheet and Worksheet (Many Examples!)

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Show Don’t Tell Meaning

Which one of the following two snippets pulls you deeper into the story?

This one:

Aaron was a cheerful young doctor, and he loved his car dearly. It was a beautiful and very expensive vehicle, and he liked to feel its horsepower below him when he ignited the engine.


Or this one:

Aaron stepped out into the bright summer sun with a smile on his face. Whistling a little tune, he walked up to his Porsche, and admired its shiny, brand-new body and rims. “Good morning, Thunderboy!” he said, and he couldn’t help but bend down and press a gentle kiss on its shiny black hood. He dropped his doctor’s bag on the passenger seat, hopped in and let the motor roar up.


Obviously, the second example hooks us much more, and draws us quicker into the story. It lets us experience the scene directly.

And that is why in your scenes, you should show, and not tell.

The difference between those two is really like the difference between watching a 3D movie and reading a review of the same movie online.

Telling means that you are putting quick labels and broad, simple adjectives on things. You are claiming something is so-and-so. You summarize.

Showing means that you describe details, and use action, emotion and dialogue to paint a scene for your reader. You are demonstrating that something is so-and-so.

Anton Chekhov knew what he was talking about. In a letter to his brother, he stated:

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared.


Even in this letter itself, Chekhov practiced some ‘Show, don’t tell’: He didn’t just tell us what he meant, but showed us with a practical example…

Beware! The Looming Danger

Telling is easy. You just pile up a couple of adjectives like in a class essay, and baaaam, you can say “I wrote a story.”

Showing is hard. You have to do brain work and think about “Which details can I include?” and “How could I demonstrate this in a visual way?” You have to immerse yourself completely into that scene, and sometimes you have to think backwards how to demonstrate something.

That’s why telling takes a lot less effort than showing. The difference is like claiming you just decluttered your garage versus actually doing it. It’s very tempting to just take the lower road and tell.

But don’t do that!

Be aware of that temptation, and don’t give in to it. If you put in the effort to show, you story will be so much more gripping and engaging, and will be a much more exciting experience.

Now let me show (not tell) you how to do it in detail:

How to ‘Show Don’t Tell’

1. Use Details

The first and most obvious thing to do when you show, don’t tell, is describing details. Be as generous as Santa Clause with details!


Make the spooky house a house with dark windows, shattered lanterns, a doorway covered in cobwebs, and an overgrown path leading up to it.

Don’t say Kate is angry. Instead, describe how Kate bangs the table with her clenched fist, her face turning slightly red, screaming “Damn! I can’t believe it!”


Unfold the scene in front of your mind’s eye, and those engaging details will come to you easily.

Attention, Fiction Writers! Your Ultimate Guide to 'Show, Don't Tell'

Spooky House

2. Try Not to Use These Words

Some words are signs that you are telling, not showing. These bad words are (view them as villains): Adjectives and any form of the word “to be.” They will seduce you to tell, not show. You must resist their evil powers!

With adjectives, you can put a quick label on anything; something is “beautiful, big, funny, strange…” The same is true for variations of “to be”: “he was, she is, it was…” All of these lead to quick labeling, rather than showing.

But I will give you an anti-spell against their evilness. The formula is to ask yourself:

How do I notice she is quick/he is funny/it is delightful/etc…?


Answer yourself that question, and you will have a great list of descriptions to show to your readers. This question is like your secret weapon against all adjectives.

3. Use Nouns and Verbs Instead

On the other hand, here are the good words, the Batmen of your dictionary (I’m so happy I got to use the plural of “Batman” for once): They are the nouns and verbs.

If you use nouns and verbs, they will force you to describe. They will force you to do the right thing, like your mom shoving spinach down your throat when you were little.

Instead of writing he was a grumpy man (adjective), you now write he rarely talked, and when he saw the kids playing, he just let a grunt out of the corner of his mouth (verbs and nouns). Voilà!

4. Use senses

Using senses is pure showing!

Instead of a lush garden, make it a garden with wild red and orange flowers, and a thick, sweet smell.

Instead of writing diving into the water was pleasant, write the water felt cool and fresh and clean on his sore skin.


When you describe a sensual experience, oftentimes your reader will have experienced it herself, and remember her experience while reading. She will then immediately and very intensely hear, smell, feel or taste the objects you lay out for her.


Your Ultimate Guide to 'Show, Don't Tell'


5. Dialogue is Your Friend

Any dialogue line you use is always showing!

That’s because a dialogue line is reflecting straight up what’s happening in the scene, moment-by-moment. It’s never the author speaking.

So instead of telling your audience Don Pedro was a powerful man, write:

“The guy in the white suite, who just got off the Royce Rolls… that’s Don Pedro,” she muttered. “He seems to always get his way. People he doesn’t like… they just disappear. His power seems to have no limits!”


In that direct speech we showed in part (white suit; Royce Rolls), and in part we told (seems to always get his will; people just disappear; power seems to have no limits).

But all the telling in this snippet is no problem. Because the person talking is the character; it’s not you, the author… you are off the hook! A very convenient and perfectly fine way to sneak some telling in through the backdoor.

By the way, if you want to bring some crime and violence into your story, make sure to check out my post about the dirty secrets of how to write a fight scene.

6. Dialogue Tags Are Not Always Your Friends

Now dialogue tags are something else entirely. They can very well be telling, and they often tell in a cringeworthy way.

A dialogue tag is the little attachment to a dialogue line that assigns a speaker (e.g. “he screamed,” “she said angrily”).

Dialogue tags are often horrible cesspools of showing, so please be very careful with them!

“You always go for the biggest sandwich!” she said jokingly.


“She said jokingly,” or “he said knowingly,”…? Seriously?

That’s an over-explanatory label and bad telling. Frankly, to me it looks like the author is desperate. Like he didn’t find any other way to express himself than hastily sticking that explanation to the end of the sentence.

You will do much better to leave out such an attachment. Instead, make your figure express the joking demeanor through her dialogue line itself. You can also use body language, it makes for great showing and will paint a nice image in your reader’s mind.

How about this?

“Oh, you…! You always go for the biggest sandwich!” She laughed and slapped his arm.


Much better. This is ‘show, don’t tell.’

How to Show Don’t Tell

I promised you examples, and examples you shall see. I hope the following list will engrave show, don’t tell deeply into your subconscious, and inspire you to always show off… I mean, to show in your stories!

A. Show don’t tell descriptions

‘Show don’t tell’ is most obvious with descriptions. Go into details! Split up that one adjective into several smaller observations. Describe enough details, and a vivid image will pop up in your reader’s head.

Don’t do it like this:

The Ferris wheel looked fun.

Do it like this:

The Ferris wheel had silly clowns painted on its sides, and its baskets had little umbrellas in red, green and blue as canopies.

Don’t do it like this:

Tessa was a lovely lady.

Do it like this:

In came Tessa. She nodded politely in all directions, and it seemed like she acknowledged every single person with a warm smile, directed at them personally.


Attention, Fiction Writers! Your Ultimate Guide to Show Don't Tell

B. Show don’t tell emotions

When you describe emotions, it’s easy to forget showing. It’s easy to just tell that your character feels “happy,” or “sad” or “embarrassed.”

But instead of telling how your character feels, try to show it; body language and dialogue are both great for that.

Don’t do it like this:

Roger was bored.

Do it like this:

Roger’s foot was tapping a steady rhythm onto the ground, and later he started doodling on a sheet of paper. It seemed to him like the hour would never pass.

Don’t do it like this:

Erika was annoyed that Mark still hadn’t returned her book about climate change.

Do it like this:

Erika looked him straight in the eye and said: “You still haven’t returned my book about climate change. What are you waiting for, the polar caps to melt?”

Your Ultimate Guide to Show Don't Tell

C. Show don’t tell activities

Whatever your characters are doing, you should consider to ‘Show, don’t tell’ it. If the action is not very interesting or meaningful, a quick telling verb might be better. But if it’s worthy exploring, go deeper and show.

Don’t do it like this:

Henrietta ate a lot that day.

Do it like this:

That day, Henrietta ate chicken with vegetable risotto, a huge bowl of mixed salad, fries, and three slices of that chocolate biscuit cake she just couldn’t resist.

Don’t do it like this:

Milo opened the door and shot the guy in the protective suit.

Do it like this:

Milo opened the door, aimed with a calm pulse, and shot the guy in the protective suit right between the eyes.


D. Show don’t tell setting/mood

If you want to get under your reader’s skin with a moody setting, you have to ‘show, don’t tell.’ What about this place evokes its mood? Describe the physical details; use nouns, verbs and senses.

Don’t do it like this:

The waterfall looked majestic.

Do it like this:

The waterfall was 300 feet/100 meters high, and the cascade dropped down from the sharp cliff with roaring thunder.

Don’t do it like this:

The rubbish dump at night looked creepy and unsettling to Randy.

Do it like this:

Dark trash piled up around Randy in all sorts of grotesque forms, like he was walking a deep abyss. Crooked shadows seemed to be on the hunt, and the nasty smell of plastic litter and food remains stung in his nose.


I wanted to write “the nasty smell of litter stung in his nose,” but then I changed my mind and showed more details. Now it’s even nastier, don’t you think…?


Attention, Fiction Writers! Your Ultimate Guide to Show, Don't Tell

Show Don’t Tell PDF

You can get the most important tips of this post all summarized on one sheet; just download this PDF. Put it next to you while you write, so you never lose sight of ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The PDF also contains an additional page to practice your ‘Show, don’t tell.’

Show Don't Tell: Your Cheat Sheet and Worksheet (Many Examples!)

No spam, ever.

Show Don’t Tell Exercise

Writing PromptNow it’s time to practice your ‘show, don’t tell,’ so you will use it automatically when you write. Once you don’t have to think about it anymore, you can concentrate on the creative, fun part of your story.

The following examples all tell in blatant and obvious ways. Pick one or more of them, and convert them into showing:

Kayla was a talented piano player.

The lawnmower was broken.

It was a restless squirrel.

Those guests were loud and obnoxious.

The audience of the concert was enthusiastic.

Greg was in a sociable mood.

Winny felt shy.

Rhonda decorated the table in a cute way.

Andy climbed up the lamppost.

The factory was very neat and clean.

The forest looked magic.


Now post your exercise in the comments below, like all of these brave commenters before you did.

Also, if you are looking for writing prompts for (almost) every genre; dialogue, character, short story, story starter etc… prompts, you can find them on the creative writing prompts page. It’s a massive collection of 63 detailed, fun prompts.

Showing You the Door

If you can show your readers a scene, you will have an exciting story. Showing takes more effort than telling, but it will make your scene come alive. Use lots of details, and describe with nouns, verbs and senses. Be careful with adjectives and variations of the word “to be,” they tend to be telling. Dialogue lines themselves are always showing, so let your characters talk!

In case of doubt, ask yourself the golden question: How do I notice she is quick/he is happy/etc…?

‘Show, don’t tell,’ is your best friend. If you can do just this one thing alone, your readers will dive into your scenes head over heels. They will have beautiful flowers to touch, spooky houses to enter, elegant parties to celebrate.

They will live in your story, and they will love it!

Image Credits – Header Pic “Living Book”: Patriartis/DeviantArt; Mortgage Pic: High level specialist/Shutterstock; Turd Pic: AlexHliv/Shutterstock; Evil Banana: Barandash Karandashich/Shutterstock; Middle Finger: Franco Volpato/Shutterstock; Death by Fruit: nuvolanevicata/Shutterstock

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98 Remarkable Comments. Join in!


  1. Gifford MacShane

    Your examples of show/don’t tell are excellent, and I really like the exercises given. Unfortunately, you’ve fallen into the same trap most people who advise “don’t use adjectives/adverbs” fall into. This sentence,

    “a garden with wild red and orange flowers, and a thick, sweet smell”, contains five adjectives, while this one, “the water felt cool and fresh and clean on his sore skin”, contains 3 adverbs and 1 adjective. The same is true in most of the other “better” sentences presented. The “noun/verb” rule sounds really good, but it’s almost impossible to follow and create any detail at all. I truly wish this precept would go into the round file for all time.

    1. Alex

      Thanks, Gifford! You are making some interesting points.

      The rule “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs” is meant as “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs to label and summarize.” As you pointed out, using only nouns and verbs (and the little else we have in our word pools) is almost impossible. We wouldn’t get an enticing text.

      What really matters is that we don’t use adverbs, and to a lesser degree adjectives, as excuses to not let our readers experience things, emotions, characters. Let’s make the audience feel all of our descriptions!

      Also, the adjectives that belong to “verbs of senses” like smell/feel/hear/taste are far more acceptable than other adjectives or adverbs. That’s because the senses draw us into the scene automatically. And it would be pretty difficult and useless to describe what somebody feels on their skin without using any adjective. By saying “it felt,” what comes afterwards will automatically be an adjective. (And yes, these are adjectives, even though they feel like adverbs.)

      Generally speaking, colors are not that bad to use either. That’s because we have seen the color described and it helps us visualize quickly how something looks. But again, don’t use color as an excuse to summarize.

      In short: Don’t label, instead create an experience! That’s the main point, and everything else is just exploring that point in detail. Writing fiction is a complex matter. Take the basic rules, and use them for whatever makes sense to you!

      Glad you made this point, so I could comment on the examples, in case this confuses anybody.

      1. Gifford MacShane

        And now I’m totally in tune with you. My mantra is to find the best word and not worry about its defined function. Noun/verb/modifier isn’t as important as the picture you paint. But like Susanne below, many people hear the “don’t” and stop right there. I have a friend, also a writer, who was told she shouldn’t use “and then” and “but then” (I agree, they’re repetitive). However, she’s now trying to eliminate every “and” and “but” from her MS, with really odd results at times.

        Rules are to be taken with a grain of salt, and applied as carefully.

      2. Chris

        Those comments… Gifford’s comment and Alex’s reply… made me smile.

        I’ve just written a scene for my current WIP that’s mainly phone dialogue. It ended with a description of a restaurant that has no less than six adjectives preceding the word ‘restaurant’. 

        Looking at it, I thought ‘No… it’s too many adjectives’… but on reflection, the number of fatuous ‘labels’ serve to emphasise perfectly the nature of the place as one of those tacky establishments so many of us go out of our way to avoid.

        Here’s the end of the scene:

        “No.” Saffy assured her, “It’s nothing like that… honestly… Can we meet up?… You choose somewhere. Lunch is on me, OK?”

        Kelly agreed, suggesting an expensive themed American styled gourmet burger restaurant in the city centre. Saffy knew it for what it was: a pretentious place, in one of the shopping malls, where style ruled over substance, even though the style was cheap and plastic, and the substance was little better than fast food, but served with white table cloths and proper cutlery.

    2. Jerise

      Actually, “cool, fresh and clean” are adjectives too. Used with a verb of Being/Seeming (“felt”), otherwise known as a “linking verb.”

      So, 4 adjectives! (No adverbs)

    3. Jerise

      Maybe a better way to describe this “rule” is “action over stasis” and “concrete description over abstraction.” So, “cool, fresh, red, orange, sore” are better because they are more vivid and specific. Whereas “nice, refreshing, pretty” are less so.

      LOVE your essay, btw! Will be sharing with students!

  2. tony

    This is great!

    Two minor nits. Use showing when the scene is important to the story; use telling when the description gets in the way. There are some times where the action is just to move along. The extra words–because showing virtually always adds words–slow the reader down with things that aren’t as important.

    Second nit (and it is small and doesn’t detract from the example, I think): “Oh you… you…always go for the biggest sandwich!” she laughed and slapped his arm. The sentence “she laughed and slapped his arm.” should begin with a capital ‘S’ since laugh is not a speech tag. Like I said, minor.

    Thanks for putting these together!

    1. Alex

      Hey Tony!

      In reply to point one: Yes, totally! There is a time to ‘tell.’ Use it when you want to speed things up, connection parts, etc… While writing this post, a strong urge in me came up to at some point write an article by the title of “Tell, don’t show.” And at some point, this article will be written…

      Second point: Noted and changed. I also broke your comment up into paragraphs.

    2. Steven Moore

      Tony, the example: “she laughed and slapped his arm.” should begin with a capital ‘S’ since laugh is not a speech tag.

      Well look again…it does begin with an S, not s.

      Just saying.

    1. Alex

      Ha ha, three words… Please don’t do this (see my reply to Gifford above).

      You can download the content upgrade sheet (yellow button)! It contains a two-page summary of the most important points of this post, including some of the examples. Two pages will serve you better than the entire 2,483 pages of this post printed…

  3. Linda

    My attempt to change “The lawnmower was broken.” “Gary yanked on the starter cord of the lawnmower. The engine sputtered, but did not catch. He pulled it again with better results — the engine caught, sputtered, revved, but then sputtered again and died. Gary tinkered with the throttle and tried again, but to no avail.”

    I’m very new to the creative writing process (been a technical writer for many years) and really struggle with the “show, not tell” idea. But this article and worksheet will help.

    1. Alex

      Nice, Linda! You are splitting that “was broken” thing up into what the character experiences.

      You still have two clear “tellings” in there though: “with better results” and “to no avail.” You could also bring in some senses: e.g. Gary is smelling smoke; a short, pathetic roar of the motor, etc…

      Kudos for doing the exercise!

  4. Arvilla

    Kayla was a talented piano player.
    My change:
    To say Kayla had talent understated her virtuosity on the piano. Determined to achieve, she endured grueling exercises while the metronome maintained its steady pulse, matching the beat of her heart.

    1. Alex

      Good to see you are going for the exercise again, Arvilla! This one is the most difficult one on the list, because “talented” is a pretty abstract word.

      How about this: “Kayla’s fingers were sliding over the keyboard without any effort. Her music seemed to lift the audience up to a higher place, as people listened with closed eyes and entranced smiles.”

      That’s another trick: Show somebody’s reaction to something. That way you are showing how something is indirectly.

  5. Keri

    I LOVE this post, Alex!
    As I can only imagine the work you put into it and your download… Thank YOU!
    I’m learning, experimenting and helping solopreneurs create storytelling videos. Your suggestions and examples for showing versus telling are perfect!
    I’ve printed your tips and example download.
    Here’s a comparison example from my simplistic script writing..

    Tell: I still have nightmares about how pirates killed my father. My mom sacrificing her life to bring me to Comzone Zone.
    Show: Haunting images flash. Pirates with blazing eyes- harsh voices- striking with swords, guns, clubs, arrows, hooks. Dad paralyzed by ropes… I watch… helpless.
    Mom drags my limp body -escaping in the adventure ship. Passing pirate ships lurking in the black sea… Mom brings ME safely to Comfort Zone.

    1. Alex

      Awesome, Keri! 😀

      Yes, “Show, don’t tell” is a powerful storytelling tool in any situation, including the business world.

      Your exercise is really, really great!! Totally draws the reader into the scene, very visual and specific. Plus, you packed long and epic events into a couple of words, and were able to do it with the power of strong images. I can feel this as I read it, as opposed to the “telling” version that is just boring. Well done!

  6. Rose

    ‘Rhonda decorated the table in a cute way.’

    Changed to…

    ‘Rhonda pursed her lips and surveyed the table. In the middle stood a plain white vase filled with a posy of spring flowers in shades of pink and violet. A name card sat in front of each place setting and a crisp linen napkin folded into a lotus shape rested on each place mat. She scattered some tiny flower shapes cut from shiny foil across the spotless cloth and admired the way they caught the light. Perfect!’

    Hardest part for me was getting rid of ‘to be’!

    1. Alex

      Nice work, Rose, I love it! Lets us feel how carefully Rhonda decorated the table.

      Also, in regards to my first comment above, you do use some adjectives, but that’s completely fine, because you don’t use them to summarize. All to the contrary: You use them to get more specific and to paint a colorful image in front of the reader’s inner eye.

      “To be” always wants to come in through the back door, it’s sneaky… But I think it’s good you didn’t use it, because the description of a laid table is static by nature, and “to be” would have made it even more static and less interesting. Anyways, well done!

  7. Eddie Omobe

    Hey Alex,
    Your blog is AMAZING!
    I think this has become my go to source for anything writing related, and how to grow as a writer.
    Show, don’t tell has been a major issue for me, now that you’ve finally put this up, I see my writing taking a new turn. Looking forward to applying your tips in my writing.
    P. S. Your site is pretty rad. Wait, did I say that already? Had to emphasise it.

  8. Laura

    Thanks for this Alex. The concept of showing and not telling haunts me. Most of the time I over think it and end up with too little or too much. I printed the cheat sheet and will keep it above my desk. Here is my take on the forest looked magic prompt:
    The forest sparkled with ice from the frosty storm. Sunlight bounced off the pine needles, refracting through the branches like light through a diamond and sharpening what few shadows were left in mid-day sun. Following the muddy path through the trees would take you from the edge of the city into a whole other world.

    1. Alex

      Nice one, Laura! That’s some magic forest. And that one was difficult too.

      As story writers, we create something out of nothing. So to show, we have to dive deep into our imagination. Just keep on writing, and it will inevitably become second nature to you.

  9. Ia

    Thank you.

    I decided to tackle the lazy verbs in “The Ferris wheel had silly clowns painted on its sides, and its baskets had little umbrellas in red, green and blue as canopies.”

    — Painted clowns with silly faces decorated the Ferris wheel sides, and little red, green, or blue umbrellas canopied the wheel’s dangling baskets.

  10. Maurine

    Thanks for the post on show/don’t tell. This explains some things I’ve been told except for “seemed.” I was told it’s telling, yet I noticed you used it in your comment on the talented piano player. Could you clarify that for me? Is it telling or not?

    Also, isn’t the adjective/adverb rule mostly so we don’t depend too much on them to modify our nouns and verbs, like writing “He walked quickly across the room” rather than “He stalked across the room.” Or “the heavy wood door” instead of “the oak door.”

    1. Alex

      You probably heard the “seemed” rule in regards to shortcuts like “he seemed boring” or “it seemed big.” And these examples do sound bad.

      Again, do whatever serves you, as long is it’s meant to unfold the experience in front of your readers’ mental eye and it’s not a lazy shortcut.

      I wrote “Her music seemed to lift the audience up to a higher place, as people listened with closed eyes and entranced smiles.” That doesn’t sound like a lazy shortcut to me. Of course, you could go into even more detail, like describing an entranced listener, etc… at some point it will become boring and a showstopper though.

      Adjective/Adverb: Yes, that rule should help us to keep in mind not to label (which an adverb tends to do), but to describe (which an adjective tends to do). Your “He stalked…” example demonstrates this very well. No modification with an adverb, but instead a better description with another, more descriptive verb.

    1. Alex

      Awesome, Naomi, enjoy!

      A LinkedIn button won’t be added any time soon, I’m afraid. There is just not enough reader demand. But of course a Twitter, FB or Pinterest share is always appreciated.

  11. Rose Green

    Kayla was a talented piano player.

    Kayla sat at the piano and felt the familiar thrill of anticipation. She glanced at the music sheet on the little ledge and a couple of nervous butterflies started fluttering around her stomach. This was not a piece she had played before and it was going to prove a challenge. Still, her abilities would carry her through and she had plenty of time to practice.

    1. Alex

      Hi Rose, you are showing us very well who Kayla really is and what she feels, but you hardly give us an impression of her talent.

      How about “you could see wide eyes and dropped jaws in the audience” (thus showing, not telling, that the audience was mesmerized), or “her fingers slid over the keyboard effortlessly”?

      1. Rose Green

        Very good point, Alex. I found this exercise more of a challenge than I expected, since I try to ‘show not tell’ in my writing in general – but I kept catching myself writing various forms of ‘to be’! I think I got too lost in avoiding ‘to be’ and not focussed enough on the exercise.

        I know this is going to improve my writing, though. Thank you for the exercise – and the critique!

  12. Chris

    Oh dear, Alex… I was about to comment on how there hadn’t been one example of that most misused word ‘awesome’… Then you used it right at the end. Never mind. 
    Am I the only one who reserves ‘awesome’ for things like the Grand Canyon, the sound of Concorde taking off beside you, Niagara Falls, or anything else truly awe inspiring, or terror inducing?

    Too many people today have watered down the word, using it to describe anything from a cup of coffee, to lipstick or a three minute pop single by some pimply boyband.

    Seriously, though… Back to the subject of the blog… Occasionally using too many adjectives and adverbs can reflect the POV of the piece. If the POV is of someone who talks and thinks that way, the text will feel like it’s his or her thoughts.

    Likewise, a terse delivery suits other POVs. Think characters like TV’s NCIS’s Gibbs for one, or Ducky for the other.  (If you’re familiar with the series… I tried to think of an example familiar to both sides of the Atlantic).

    1. Alex

      If you mean the “Awesome comments,” then I have to agree; I have been wanting to change that for a while. It’s meant to encourage people to comment, but the word sounds meaningless.

      Reflect the POV… hm, that’s a good point too. One just has to be careful not to use it as an excuse for laziness. I’m not familiar with your TV examples, unfortunately.

  13. Beth

    Hi Alex. Thank you for the blog.

    For two years now, since I decided to write stories, I have struggled with “Show, don’t tell.” And you’re right…we are tempted to tell all.

    I like your comment: In case of doubt, ask yourself the golden question: How do I notice she is quick/he is happy/etc…? I think this one will help me a great deal with my writing.

    So I have decided to give one of your exercises a try. Sorry if I get it wrong, but at least I know I have learnt something new today.

    Winny felt shy.

    Changed to:
    Winny lowered her gaze and looked at the tips of her black shoes. Offering only small, quick glances under her thick black lashes, in the direction of the handsome rugged face of the stranger standing before her. Her reluctance to let him touch her created more tension in her already tingling slender body. She turned and averted her gaze onto a field of yellow poppies and blue daffodils almost as if she were blatantly ignoring him. Which of course, she wasn’t.

    The word ‘felt’ in your sentence is one of the senses – touch.

    This was challenging Alex. Thank you so much again for this blog.

    1. Alex

      Hi Beth, that was excellent. That’s exactly what “Show, don’t tell” is about.

      In your comment, I can almost see your inner struggle and how those simple, blunt adjectives and adverbs want to come out of you. But you don’t let them, he he… good writing!

  14. Gordon

    Kayla asked us to bear with her because she didn’t have any sheet music as she played the first twelve measures of the Moonlight Sonata, segueing into Moonlight in Vermont with a Latin rhythm while continuing the Moonlight Sonata as background. Before she was done, she had also incorporated Moon River as a waltz and Moon Dance as Scott Joplin might have played it before returning to Moonlight Sonata with distinctly modern jazz chords, major 7ths, half diminisheds making it sound as if Antonio Carlos Jobim had composed it. When she played the last notes, the audience was too stunned to applaud, and I wasn’t the only one with tears of appreciation in my eyes.

  15. Gordon


    What fun, thanks. When I was teaching high school, I made printed signs that said “Show, don’t Tell” in 26 different languages. I remember a Vietnamese refugee who was looking around the room who suddenly smiled when he saw the words in his home language. One sign I had but never posted was in Braille. I thought that was one time it might not be true. I ran out of room on the other post.

    1. Alex

      Hey Gordon! 26 languages… sounds like they must have remembered in the end.

      Braille – you did think of everything. Morse code and dog language (if somebody manages to translate…) would be my ideas.

  16. Gordon

    Yep, Morse code was one of them. I got Turkish from a man sitting next to me on a plane reading a magazine with letters I didn’t recognize. I was a pest asking people, but they were always gracious.

  17. Pamela

    Cold sweat appeared on Winnie’s face and began running down the neck of her cardigan when she saw the number of people in the room. She wrapped her arms around her stomach as it rolled at the thought of meeting someone new.

  18. Karen Llewellyn

    Alex, good, and simple way to advise inexperienced writers, but instead of “was tapping his foot,” etc. Get rid of the “to be” verb and say, “…tapped his foot….” Doesn’t that work better, using past tense?

    1. Alex

      I like “was tapping” better because it makes us feel how slowly time goes by. Just as you got bored of the “to be” verb, poor Rodger got bored of time passing by slowly.

      But really, either way is completely fine.

  19. Maria Alexandria

    Hello i can’t remember how many times stopping and starting read changing things word saying I cannot put that and cross it out.
    When I get to a personal scene I find my sel blushing and what I was thinking not putting it in
    I read
    right it don’t read I found most of my words
    Hit home at one point when I finished the paragraph I decided to read it to see if it actually sound any good
    I actually cried it was beautiful i couldn’t believe it was my words

    Thank you

    1. Alex

      Hi Maria Alexandria, I’m not sure what parts of your comment mean, but I’m happy my posts helped you and you have written something touching you can be proud of. That’s so great to hear!!

      It’s indeed not easy to write about very personal things – but as a rule of thumb, the more awkward it feels to write it, the more real (and the better) it is.

      Keep on writing and riding your pen – I’m rooting for you!

  20. robintvale (Jessica)

    Learn deep pov and your showing improves like 200% But man it’s hard as heck. >_<

    How about next week an article on not holding the reader's hand? I tend to slip back into doing that when worried about making things clear enough. and sure enough on this new editing round, I was saying things twice (already said in the dialogue, in the body movements. another sneaky one that gets in is stuff like, 'her hand' when in the other sentence or paragraph the reader was already shown she/he hand say an object in their hand. So that gets cut out or reworded. 😛

    1. Alex

      It sounds like you are having lots of fun with editing. I mean looots and looots of fun… or so…

      But seriously, this is just a matter of practicing writing. Just keep on writing and being aware of these things, and you will automatically do these repetitions less and less. Until editing ACTUALLY becomes fun.

  21. red

    Thank you for addressing a pet peeve of mine. We are artists. We paint with words. Telling is journalism and it’s a rare journalist who can make the transition from workhorse to warhorse. Well done, and working with that artist must be a blast! 🙂

      1. red

        Yes! We are creators. SF writers invented the laser/blaster. We were flying around the world and to the moon before cars were invented. Battling demons and foreign hordes before most most nations were born. Teachers bemoan that no one is interested in learning history. Then, teacher, get a writer to do it for you. We make it live again. We put life an blood into dry, dull texts. We teach as we learn and show how to do it and do it with style. niio

  22. Sharon

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks, as always, for your inspiring posts, and for all the free goodies you send us.

    Here’s Andy up a lamppost.

    “Come down from there,” Andy’s father yelled from the ground below. A crowd was beginning to gather around the lamppost.
    The unrelenting sun, high in the sky, beat without mercy on Andy’s bare head.
    Andy knew what would happen if he came down. He wasn’t sure if he was more afraid of his father’s punishment for letting the dogs out, again, to run loose in the neighborhood, or falling and breaking a leg.
    His young body clung to the pole, his arms and legs wrapped around it like a defenseless animal up a tree, the menace below out of reach.
    He felt the perspiration on his forehead beginning to drip into his eyes.
    He looked down. He could see someone on a phone, his father no longer yelling, only imploring Andy to come down.
    Then, with immense relief, he saw his mother pull her car into the driveway, back from the market.
    Slowly, very slowly, he let himself slide down the lamppost.
    There was going to be a picnic today.

  23. Jon

    Hello Alex,

    I really enjoyed your article. I was wondering if I could email you my responses to your prompts. I am a new writer and would love to hear your critiques on what I’m doing right and wrong. Posting them in the comment section would take up too much room. Thanks for your time!

  24. Elisabeth

    Helpful article! I would love feedback on these…

    “Winny felt shy.”

    Winny clasped her sweaty hands in front of her, pushing herself into a corner. She glanced up at the stranger beside her and her eyes flickered back to her shoes. He was staring straight at her, bringing a flush to her cheeks.

    “Um…” she said, forcing a smile. “Hi?”


    “Kayla was a talented piano player.”

    Kayla settled down on the piano bench and flexed her fingers. Then she straightened and tapped a few keys lightly. The song began, rising to a swell beneath her dancing fingers, drawing gasps from the audience. She sensed their admiration and launched into a complicated passage, performing dizzying tremolos with ease. At the end of her performance, she lifted her foot from the pedal, rose and bowed. The audience burst into deafening applause.


    “The forest looked magic.”

    Myra gazed around the dreamy forest, her eyes wide with amazement. The green leaves glowed through with sunlight, dust swirling in the air like sparkling phantoms. The bubbling sound of water filled the air, tinkling, murmuring. Myra slowly walked through the forest, leaves snapping and brushing beneath her feet.

    “Magical,” she whispered, her voice a mere rasp.


    “Those guests were loud and obnoxious.”

    Edward’s spine stiffened as his guests guffawed.

    “THAT IS HILARIOUS!” Laura wheezed, doubling over laughing. She slapped Edward’s arm and he flinched, struggling to remain calm.

    Ken tossed his bottle over Edward into the trashcan, nailing it. A roar rose, congratulating him on his hit.

    Edward’s facade of calm snapped. “Get out!” he shouted, thrusting a finger toward the door. Immediately the guests hushed and all eyes turned to him. In the sudden silence, Edward repeated himself, his voice so quiet they strained to hear him. “Get out.”


    “It was a restless squirrel.”

    The squirrel chippered and snapped its bushy tail. Its nails drummed on the ground and its bright, black eyes darted from one thing to another with no promise of rest in sight.

    1. Alex

      You are in part practicing some good showing, Elisabeth, but you also sometimes fall back on clear telling: E.g. the “complicated passage,” the “Magical” whisper, and the squirrel’s “no promise of rest.”

      Of course, one can’t always 100% show, but for the purpose of these exercises, try not to become lazy, but think of different ways of displaying what you want to express.

      Your prompt I liked best was the one with the obnoxious guests – reading it, you feel their obnoxiousness and ridiculousness, and it made me smile.

      Good writing!

  25. Lola WIlcox

    “Jesse, just turn on the mower and mow the lawn. I know it’s big and loud, but you can’t cut off your toe.”
    “It’s broken.”
    “Don’t tell me it’s broken! Just mow the lawn.”
    “Right here, look, see this?”
    “What? If I have to walk over there and there is nothing wrong….”
    “OK. To the left of the blades but before the wheel is the attachment with the turning mechanism. Hanging off the left side of that mechanism is a piece of metal, jagged edged, that has clearly broken off. You can see the other half of the jaggs on the mechanism itself.
    If I….”
    “Jesse, that’s enough. I see it. Help me load it up to go to the repair shop. You can use the old hand mower, the one with the oak handle, the green blades, and the wheels. It never fails. Watch your toes.”

    Great post, Alex.

  26. Yuna

    Sentence is from your show don’t tell book
    This is my first time writing so prepare for some beginner cringe

    Tell:Charley looked like a violent guy.

    Show: A putrid smell of cologne hit Shanna’s nostrils blocking the sweet aroma of cake Carl and her were eating.
    “Good evening little lady mind if I talk to your friend for a bit,”A masculine voice said from beside her. She looked up from her plate of food and who stood there was none other than Charley, her stomach dropped.
    Charley stared down at both them his wild beady eyes looking between them.He had a crooked nose and scarred milky white left eye.His entire body towering over the two of them blocking the only exit from the table.He smiled his jagged teeth what was meant to be a warm smile looked more like a predatory shark flashing it teeth at its prey.He wore his faded black bikers jacket and white-T with redish stains all over it.

    She was sure that was blood.

    She could hear Carl’s fork clanged on to his plate.

    ”It’s not gonna get violent unless it has too.” Charley said still grinning, put his meaty right hand on his holstered gun flashing it beneath his jacket.Her heart racing, breathing uneven Shanna could not tear her eyes away from it.

    “S-Sure,”Carl squeaked out.

    The spell broken,Shanna darted her eyes to Carl who’s mouth was opening and closing like fish gasping for air. Fingers digging into his hand licking his lips he got up and followed Charley through the front of the dinner.

  27. Flo

    Kayla was a talented piano player.

    Kalya moved her elegant fingers through the black and white keys of the piano with unfathomable speed. The only one in class to play allegro and not break a sweat. We all stared in awe as she finished her piece smiling at us.

    Those guests were loud and obnoxious.

    My baby girl’s chest was rising and falling peacefully. It took two hours to get her to sleep. I had closed all doors to hear less from the guests who were all laughing at each other without a care in the world, forgetting that I had just put to sleep my newborn. They had come to visit me and my daughter, but apparently were enjoying each others company more.

    Winny felt shy.

    Hiding her chubby red cheeks at the crock of her mother’s neck, Whinny whispered inaudible words. I approached slowly, scared that I would startle a little bird. “Would you like to show me your doll? I am sure we will get all along in kindergarden. Take your time should you wish?”
    She raised her glassy blue eyes to look at me for just a brief moment before hiding again and hugging tighter her mommy.

    I did these three just for fun. I loved this article and bookmarked it. Thank you!

  28. Rob

    Kayla was a talented piano player.

    “Everyone’s here!” the woman gushed, her lacquered pewter head swiveling about the concert hall despite herself. “Hmm? Oh yes,” said the man, his eyes returning to neutral after taking in a willowy blonde a row over.

    Other couples from the “Conductor’s Circle” crowded the aisles, modeling vacation tans and daring the ushers to squeeze by them. “The debut of the season!,” a man spat out, his words rising above the shrill of the piccolos just now tuning up.

    Out of sight eyes shut, Kayla stood in the wings and allowed the buzz of the crowd to lap her ears: the streams of small talk, the exaggerated bonhomie, the cackles and guffaws. It was her first solo concert and a promise to her mother, whose presence she felt in the back rows, somewhere below the balcony. Behind her eyelids, Kayla sensed the dimming of the lights and noticed how this prompted a final crescendo of thrilled “do call me’s!” interspersed by the masculine percussion of back and palm claps.

    Kayla opened her eyes. Now was her turn. Pausing, like a tightrope walker before the first step, she said a prayer: It’s O.K. I forgive you. Striding out, her gaze held above the first rows, she felt a new lightness, a new briskness. Even the first violin’s head turned, and she sensed that her presence had hushed the room.

    1. Alex

      Hi Rob, good to see that you did the prompt! You are taking a very different approach, as you don´t describe her playing, but people´s expectations of her playing – an interesting variation.

  29. Richard

    Hi Alex, Why I tried to be a writer is a mystery. When I went to school, they never taught me how to read are write. However, I found a lady online who helped me put out my first book this month in October, called Ride the Dark Rails. I will be 79 when it hits Barnes & Noble. (online only) My wife thinks why write something that very few people will read? I think of myself as a storyteller more than a writer. It’s posts like yours that I always read. I know I am not the best writer in the world, but my stories are different. I cannot put a label on them as some are like Steven King meets the Twilight Zone and others have Alfred Hitchcock’s ending.
    Thank you for your time.

  30. Richard

    Alex, I was not trying to pluck my book. I just thought someone like you kept me trying when others thought I was crazy to try. I started writing at 70 because I have a phone that can spell the words I cannot. All I have to do is get the dumb thing to understand my voice.(I am from New Orleans and people think I have an accent) lol. Thanks for your help.

    1. Will Bontrager

      At 70, you had decades and decades of experience to help with your writing. At 79, another decade has been packed in. You have wisdom. It is a wonderful time to write fiction. I know you have wisdom because I do, too. I am 70, a youngster 🙂 🙂 🙂 Betcha Ride the Rails is wonderful!

  31. Richard Richard

    Hi Will, my book is online at Barnes& Noble, and in an ebook at many places. I guess what took me so long to write a book is when I went to school I was never taught how to read. So, for years I thought only people who had an education were writers. I think of myself as more of a storyteller. At 70 I just decided to write a book. My book has 12 short stories that are tales that travel all over. One story is about a man who must commit a murder in 3 days, but must make it look like an accident. Another is about a woman who had an abortion, and 4 years later it comes back to take her son’s place. See Will just everyday stuff. Do you dare to Ride The Dark Rails?

  32. Amanda

    I guess this is an older post but since I’m new to the mailings I just got it. I wanted to give it a shot. Still trying to figure out what works for me. Hopefully this attempt is okay.

    Greg was in a sociable mood-
    “Good morning!” Greg strolled into the office lounge Monday morning. The smell of fresh coffee greeted him along with a couple noncommittal nods from his coworkers. “Everyone have a good weekend?” he asked.
    “I guess,” Sally said from behind the Daily News.
    “How about you, Tom? Do anything fun?” Greg asked, pouring a steaming cup off dark roast and adding his caramel macchiato creamer to get the dark liquid to that perfect toffee color.
    “Same old same old,” Tom replied to the phone in his hand.
    Greg leaned against the counter and pursed his lips, glancing around the breakroom. Sally buried herself behind the paper, lost to the obituaries. Tom scrolled his phone…”Where’s Ben?” he asked after a long silence.
    “I guess he called in.” Tom didn’t look up from the screen in front of his face.
    Greg sipped his coffee and sighed. The steam from the cup washed over his sunburned skin, radiating heat like he was still sitting on the beach in the blazing July sun. A smile spread across his face at the memory of the bikini clad blond who’d asked him to play volleyball with her and her friends. He could still hear her surprised laugh when he’d spiked the ball on the other team and won the game. God, what a great weekend.
    Greg’s shoulders slumped as he glanced at his uninterested coworkers one last time before heading out to his desk.

    1. Alex

      Oooooh, he finally gave up, how sad is this…

      I like your technique of showing how sociable Greg is by contrasting his attitude with the attitude of his co-workers. But you are also relying a bit too heavily on this trick, IMO. Would be even better if you showed Greg not just asking questions, but also interacting otherwise (or trying to). But you definitely get your point across!

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