Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 16, 2010

Seven “Show Don’t Tell” Tips

by Kathy Temean

Show don’t tell is something we hear over and over again from our critique groups, editors, and publishers. 

What they are really saying is they want you to provide details and let  your reader interpret them.  If you can do this, your story and writing will be more interesting to read. 

Remember, we want those editors to not be able to put down our manuscripts.

Here are some tips:

1.  Give clues that show the setting, the story, and the character. Put the mental “camera” in the scene and have it run.  This “camera” can record not only sight but all five senses – Taste, Sounds, Touch, Sight, Smell.  Describe what this camera “records.” Let your reader experience it firsthand.  Let the reader feel the scene and deduce the meaning.

2. Most of your showing will involve sight and sound, but remember to use touch as well. Try to add at least one detail involving taste or smell.  They tend to be the most powerful in evoking emotion and memory in readers.  Don’t forget to use them.

3.  Use reporter questions–who, what, when, where, why, how.  These questions can help turn bland writing into active writing.  Also ask yourself these questions when revising:

            ·  Does this sentence paint a picture for the reader?

            ·  Does it leave questions in the reader’s mind?

            ·  Does it answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, how?

            ·  How could it answer who, what, when, where, why, how and paint
               a picture for the reader?

4.  Use action words to show a character’s feelings.

5.  Check your work for telling moments.  Look for adjectives in your rough draft. Circle each one.  Analyze each one. Is there a way to pull an adjective out altogether and show it instead?

6.  Search for “was” in your document. While “was” isn’t always used in telling situations, it is 80% of the time.

7.  Another place to check is your dialog.  Are your characters telling each other things they already know, just so you can tell the reader?  Have your story reveal that information either through exposition, summary, or flashback, rather than by forcing a character to include the information in dialogue, monologue, or silent musing.

Is there any time where it is okay to tell?  Yes, sometimes when you are in the revision process you might find an expansive scene that would be better off being replaced with a brief summary to help pick up the pace.

Love to hear, if you have some other techniques that everyone could benefit by trying.




  1. Your specific points to do are refreshing. Thank you for a wonderful post.


    • David,

      Sometimes it is just good to be reminded of things you might already know. Thanks for visiting.



  2. What insight you have and such a clear, straight to the point way of teaching this. Thank you. I’m printing this out and saving it.
    Pam B


    • Pam,

      What a nice compliment. Thank you for the comment.



  3. Kathy, thanks a million for your article. I also read your blog on “Your Editor Wants a Rewrite.”

    Two great pieces to put to use and to share with other writers. I made copies. I have always listened to editors for if it wasn’t for good editors, I may not, have ever been published.


    • Mary,

      I’m glad you found it useful. It is so true, a good editor is worth their weight in gold – there’s a cliche for you.



  4. Thanks for an important reminder. It takes practice to become a strong “show” writer even for experienced writers.


    • Meryl,

      I do think it is helpful to read writing articles, even if we have heard these things before. I am going to make sure I include taste and smell; two things I could improve on doing.


  5. Great tips. I think smell is the one that most people (Including myself) forget to use and like you said, is one of the most powerful.


    • Kerrie,

      I am in the middle of writing a middle grade novel. It is easy when your scene has flowers or garbage, but it is a little harder in other scene. Like today, I had to go to the hospital and I tried to smell something I could mention when writing that type of scene, but there weren’t any smells. I wouldn’t have expected that, but maybe with all the allergies, they are using non-fragrant cleaning products, etc. I guess I’ll have to have a stinky nurse in my story.



  6. Kathy,
    Great stuff here. Nice to be reminded not to take our writing for granted.




    • Henya,

      It’s so easy to miss some of these things, so it is nice to read something about craft, especially before you revise and have everything you know fresh in your mind.



  7. …Oh yes…printing as we speak….


  8. Coming late to comment on this post, Kathy…but it is timeless…thanks so much!


  9. No, I will not succumb to your “show, don’t tell” commandments. I detest showing; ergo, I continue telling shamelessly and deliberately.


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