Show, Don’t Tell

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve heard this mantra repeatedly, but what does it mean?

Basically, it means that instead of telling a reader how the man was sad, the writer should talk about the signs that show the man was sad.

The man was sad.”


The man slumped on the park bench with reddened eyes.

While this example is a bit simplistic, you can see that the second example helps the reader see the man and draw their own conclusions. You want to lead the reader on a journey through your story, not shove them around like a bad museum guide.

You want to evoke a mood or a scene while allowing the reader to visualize it themselves. Imagine you’re watching your favorite television show. The main character sits down with a blank stare and announces, “I’m very happy.” Are you going to believe them? Of course not. They are words alone with nothing to accompany them for proof.

Show, don’t tell applies to other things besides emotions. It’s about using description to detail the story.

As a creative writing exercise, describe your mood right now without using the name of the emotion. Picture yourself as someone else might see you. Are you frowning? Is your hair a mess? Are you smiling?

While it might be tempting to throw in a cliche or two, so the reader knows exactly what you mean, it’s a lazy way to write. A strong story will “avoid cliches like the plague.” Only you can tell your story in a unique way, but The Emotion Thesaurus will help if you’re stuck on a certain scene, or you want to practice showing, not telling.

I’ve used this book myself many times when I was unsure whether the reaction of a character felt true to the situation. Don’t copy the examples in the book, but use them as a jumping off point for your own characters’ emotions.

If you’d like to challenge yourself, take a few examples and rewrite them to mean the same thing. In the book, flapping hands is a physical sign of agitation. What other movements can describe agitation?

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