‘Show Not Tell’ – A How To Guide

It takes courage to write. Facing that blank page can be difficult enough in itself. Finding the words to express your scene goal, mix more conflict into a line of dialogue, or add a perfect detail of description is no easy task. But fiction is more than plot, character and setting. Great fiction has emotion and that emotion comes from the heart and soul of the writer.

But it isn’t a simple matter of ‘telling’ the reader about the emotions a character is experiencing, instead we are told to ‘show’ them. It is a phrase often used, but not always easy to put into practice. So I thought I’d share a few techniques I’ve developed to help me ‘show’ the emotions in my stories, rather than ‘tell’ them.


One way I try to express a character’s emotion within a scene is by adding actions around dialogue. It’s a good way to show a character’s attitude during the conversation without directly telling the reader how he’s feeling.

“Do you think she’ll make me go back this time?” he asked.

“You know she will.”

“But why?” He pulled a thread so hard it made a run in the cloth.

An action line is a good way to avoid using said + adverb such as,

“But why?” he said, angrily.

It also helps make the scene more visual for the reader.

You can take it one step further by using character actions as a kind of metaphor for their emotional state.

“It’s obvious the girl has feelings for you.”

Slav looked up. “Who, Maria? Don’t be daft.”

Mykola laughed and handed Slav a chestnut.

Slav peeled off its husk.

“Do you really think she likes me?” he said, chewing on the sweet nut.

In the example above, Slav chewing on the sweet nut shows his feelings about the idea that Maria likes him.


Another way to ‘show’ a character’s feelings is to use their surroundings. In the scene below, Slav is hiding under the bed, feeling trapped and afraid.

He tried to move his head, but his temple scraped the underside of the bed. His spine pressed against floorboards, the weight of the fibres above him suffocating.

By describing the character’s surroundings the sense of claustrophobia has been conveyed without directly ‘telling’ the reader Slav feels trapped.

Description is also a wonderful way to convey the general mood of a scene.

As they travelled, darkness invaded the forest. Even during daylight, shadow triumphed, so little of the sun filtered down to the forest floor.

The reader knows this journey is not going to be a picnic.


Dialogue is a powerful tool when it comes to showing the reader your characters’ emotions. Don’t be afraid of letting your characters be honest about their feelings when the occasion calls for it.

“Come with me,” he whispered.

“Do you really want me to?”

“I do.” Slav took hold of Maria’s fingers and touched them to his lips. “I have no life without you.”

“A few weeks ago, if you’d said that, it would have made me so happy. But now… things are different.”

“I can’t face this without you, Maria, it’s too big. Don’t make me go alone.”

Maria reached out and brushed his cheek. “I couldn’t leave you even when I tried.”


Last, but by no means least, using a character’s senses can be a powerful way to show emotion. Smell, taste, touch and sound are all good emotional senses.

Slav wasn’t used to being this close to her; he could smell the rosemary soap she used to wash her hair.

In the above sentence Slav’s sense of smell helps add a touch of intimacy to the scene.

Well, that’s enough about Show not Tell for now. If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au, iTunes and Kobo.

19 thoughts on “‘Show Not Tell’ – A How To Guide

  1. Reblogged this on 4writersandreaders and commented:
    Writing tips: How to’s :SHOW, don’t tell!

  2. Good post. I have bookmarked this page and will send my editing clients here.

  3. Angel Bella says:

    This is absolutely helpful and ya good job .

  4. A great post, Lorrie. Particularly relevant since I’m coming to the end of a rewrite and need to remember to check that I’ve used all those techniques you’ve listed above to good effect. Thanks!

  5. paul says:

    some times it’s hard to mix up scences- this way needs extra care beause the audience might feel bored of the story, but all the techniques that you have explored above are indeed needed. it’s an excellent post!

  6. Thank you, Paul, I’m glad you liked it.

  7. Gemma Cary says:

    Really useful, thanks Lorrie. I’m about to do some rewriting so will employ as many of your tips as I can!

  8. Mridula says:

    That was a helpful share, thanks

  9. Mridula says:

    Thanks for liking my flash fiction. If U can, leave a comment in that link.

  10. schillingklaus says:

    No, I will not relinguish telling in favour of showing, regardless of any of your attempts at coercing us into doing so. Telling is my one way to go, and nothing will ever change my taste.

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