Show, don’t tell: easier said than done

Photo of a sharpened pencil, next to pencil shavings and small, gray pencil sharpener

If you’re new to writing or on a journey to soak up whatever knowledge you can find, you may wonder why writers decide to do what they do. So let’s talk more about the nuances of the scene you’re trying to set for the reader.

Any writer can attest to the importance of “show, don’t tell” when crafting engaging and compelling narratives. Even though this advice sounds straightforward, it isn’t always as easy as it seems.

Writers often make the mistake of simply stating their character’s emotions or actions rather than allowing the reader to draw it out themselves from the words on the page. The result is flat, unengaging writing that does not resonate with our audience.

Let’s think about this scenario: you’re a reader. You’ve started a new book from your to-be-read pile. Congratulations!

You’re a few chapters in, a few pages, whatever. But you discover that you can’t relate emotionally to a character that plays a considerable role in the story, and you don’t think you can finish the book if they’re that important.

You might wonder what about these characters makes them so unpleasant as writers. That often happens to me when I’m consuming someone else’s work.

Maybe the author intends you to read them this way as a deliberate craft choice. There could also be an unpalatable atmosphere around the character, so you can’t get into it.

The next question is: what can you do as the writer to avoid someone tossing your work in their DNF (did not finish) pile?

Put your character through something new. Try some of the following techniques to jog your creativity:

Show, Don’t Tell Tip Number One

Show Interest

Lean in, ask questions, strong eye contact, smile, nod, speak in short bursts, add to the conversation, open body posture, light physical touches

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash
Show, Don’t Tell Tip Number Two


Lean back, angle away, crossed arms, wandering gaze, easily distracted, poor eye contact, rarely speaking, shrugging

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
Show, Don’t Tell Tip Number Three


Jittery, jerky, fiddling with wristwatch, touching things, broken eye contact, swallowing, looking down, looking away, touching throat, rubbing neck, hesitating, speech trailing off, non-committed

Show, Don’t Tell Tip Number Four

Frustration & Anger

Tight voice, low tone, directly to the point, short sentences, facial and muscular tension, curled hands, strong grip, thrust-out chest, intense stare, unblinking, rigid neck

Photo by Julien L on Unsplash
Photo by Julien L on Unsplash
Show, Don’t Tell Tip Number Five


Darting eye contact, flashing smile, talking too fast, always wanting to change the topic, misdirection, delayed reactions, steering the conversation, cutting people off, defensiveness, increased personal distance, blocking, closed body posture

You’ll notice how many of these categories overlap.

There’s a reason: expressing emotion on a page is difficult. The decisions you make as the writer will determine how you portray that.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a novelist, short story author, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, or poet. The tips I share with you are merely to get you to think.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.