What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe.

Here’s a sentence that tells:

Mr. Jeffries was a fat, ungrateful old man.

That gets the information across, but it’s boring. Most writers who tell tend to lose more readers than gain.  

Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Jeffries in the reader’s mind:

Mr. Jeffries heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame, his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection. Jeffries pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.

In the second example, I didn’t tell you Mr. Jeffries is fat. I showed you. I also didn’t tell you he was old, but showed you by mentioning his arthritic knees, his cane, and that he has a girl who tends to him. You probably guessed by now that he’s not a nice man.

One of the most hideous examples of telling rather than showing is the “As you know, Mr. Jeffries,” dialog. This is when one character tells another something they both know. But it’s almost as hideous when an author painstakingly uses dialog and action to convey something the characters all know.

However, like most rules of thumb, “Show don’t tell” is excellent advice most of the time — but writers can apply it too broadly, or in situations where it hurts more than it helps. You must be aware of the spirit, as well as the letter, of this particular law. New writers tend to lecture their readers. And it’s never a good idea to bludgeon your readers with information. The key is to find the right mix between showing and telling. You don’t want to bore your reader. Don’t Bore Your Reader – jamesCglass

If you find your writing feeling flat, take a step back and imagine the scene yourself. What sounds do you hear? What smells are in the air? What expression does your character have on his face? What are his motivations? Once you dig deeper into your own imagination, see if you can make your writing better by adding a few specifics. This will transport the readers to the scene you have in your mind.

One way to do this is read your work out loud. If your writing sounds boring, then it probably is. Another way to help show rather than tell is to use beta readers. Beta Readers – jamesCglass

Make today a good writing day. Whether one sentence, one paragraph or one chapter. It’s all progress. Make today a good writing day.


James Glass retired from the United States Navy after 22 years of service. After retiring, he exchanged his rifle for a pen. He and his family moved back to the Florida Panhandle. He’s married and has two children. James is also the President of the Panhandle Writer's Group.

3 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

  1. Rebecca Warner

    What a good article! I also think showing rather than telling eliminates the propensity for writing stilted dialogue.

  2. Diane Petty

    Great article and sage advice!! Thanks for posting.

    1. James

      Glad you enjoyed it, Diane.

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