Show, Don’t Tell

There’s a Deadline Beast lurking in the near future, so this post will be brief, for me.

You’ve heard or read this before, but even writing today’s post revealed some laziness on my part and I cleaned up several pages of my work in progress.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.  C.S. Lewis

The late E. L. Doctorow, author of twelve historical fiction novels said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

And then there’s King Stephen who is always delicate as a chainsaw. “Your readers, without even realizing it, will love you for it, because it engages them, it draws them into the story. If you show, you don’t need to tell. If she kicks him in the balls, the reader gets that she’s angry. You don’t need to say it.”

In my personal writing experience, this is one of the hardest things to learn, second only to finding your writing “voice.”

The following is from my newest work in progress, a traditional western.

One of the newer glassy-eyed inmates with a wispy mustache passed us at the same time his stomach growled, looking for a place out of the searing sun and somewhere safe to eat. Swift attacks to steal our twice-a-day allotment usually spilled more than they gained. Escobedo had only been in Purgatorio for a week, and in those few days the slender man lost half of his rations.

He sat only a dozen feet from us norte americanos and wolfed down his meal. The two fresh cuts over one eyebrow and the opposite cheekbone was proof of another hard night.

Andelacio Morales rose from where he squatted with a clot of other prisoners near the long row of outside cells and swaggered across the bare yard. Even me and the boys steered clear of him when we could, but from the look in Morales’ eye, that was about to change.

Morales’ worn-out shoes crunched on the yard’s gravel and sand packed hard by decades of footsteps. The prisoner in for life towered over Escobedo who kept his eyes lowered to the tin plate between his knees. The young man’s head ducked and what little spirit was left in the newest inmate evaporated.

As I said, this piece isn’t yet finished, but this example avoids weak telling words and phrases like “I heard,” (Morale’s crunching footsteps) “He felt,” and “was afraid” (Escobedo’s fear demonstrated in the last sentence). Telling words, and phrases pushes the reader out of the story. Don’t tell us that your characters are happy, sad, scared, giddy (I especially hate that word), hot, hungry, or mad.

You want readers to be in the scene, and not on the outside looking in. Your writing should pull readers into the world you’ve created so they can use their senses based on their own memories and experiences.


Tell: The sound of gunfire reached his ears.

Show: The hard, flat reports of gunfire came as almost physical blows.


Tell: The wildflowers were pretty.

Show: The prairie was a carpet of color, nodding and swaying in the wind.


Tell: He smelled bacon when he walked into the café.

Show: The aroma of frying bacon wrapped him in comfortable memories of vacations and café breakfasts.


Tell: She heard the sound of birds in the trees.

Show: Birds flittered in the branches, and a mockingbird went through her repertoire of songs.


Tell: Bill was divorced.

Show: Bill’s fingers absently went to the pale skin on the fourth ring of his left hand, feeling was as strange as his empty bed.


“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” —Richard Price

Show, don’t tell, allows the reader to experience the story through actions, words, subtext, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your explanations and descriptions. If your character is afraid, let them feel his pounding heart, or the sharp pain in her stomach. A shortness of breath is terror, and the urge to flee is natural.

Pick out a couple of pages in your own WIP and clean them up as I get out of here. Don’t tell readers something is terrifying, like an impending deadline. Show them.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

9 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell

  1. I’m fond of Chekhov’s advice and used it in my Mike Sledge noir pastiche:

    “Here and there, through the murk, I could see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me like a shattered bottle of muscatel glittering in the headlights of an ambulance.”

    • That’s great! Another caution here for freshman writers, “less is more.” It’s easy to overdo descriptive writing, also. Moderation in all things.

  2. It usually takes a couple of revision passes to catch all my show-don’t-tell errors but it always reads better once they’ve been fixed.

  3. I find I get bored with my writing when I’m telling instead of showing… and almost every time the “telling” turns out to be the “outline” or “plan” that needs to be “shown.” If it doesn’t engage me, it sure won’t engage the reader…

  4. Checkhov, in my opinion, was the greatest short story writer of all time. He could write a 4-page story of a clerk having a normal day at work and the reader feels he’s really been some place.

    Thanks for the actual prose examples. I’m forever removing those “tell” filters from my writing. In close third person, you can throw details out and the reader knows it’s from the POV character’s senses.

  5. You’re right about close third person. I find that in first person, my storytelling senses open right up. It’s where I’m the most comfortable.

  6. Great examples, Rev. The only time I tell is when I’m transitioning fast from one scene to another. Or maybe from one beat of lesser intensity to one that requires more.

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