Show vs Tell – A Writers’ Workshop

writing prompt, show vs tell, show not tell, old typewriter, meet,discuss,practice

Welcome to the Writers’ Workshop, a place where writers of all abilities can come together and discuss the nuances of our craft, whether we excel at or struggle with it. There will be no judgement here, only the friendly, supportive guidance that the writing community holds dear.

The format is simple. Each month I will open the discussion on a subject that writers of all abilities struggle with. I will pull together resources that I believe to be helpful or insightful and I will also present any arguments that may give weight to an alternative theory. I will invite you into a discussion on the subject, after all, writing is an emotive subject. There is no right or wrong way to write, as Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

At the end of each discussion, I will invite you to take part in an exercise to demonstrate exactly what we have been discussing.

writer workshop, meet, discuss, practice,

Are you ready?

This week we are going to be focusing on one of the most important concepts for a new writer to grasp.

show, tell, show vs tell, show versus tell

What is the difference between showing and telling?

Patricia C. Wrede provides some of the most level headed advice I have read on this subject which I summarise to mean the following:

You are telling if you are informing your reader what conclusion should be drawn without giving them the tools to do so themselves.

You are showing  if you give your reader the necessary information to allow them to draw their own conclusions through the actions, thoughts and descriptions provided to lead them there.

Perhaps this piece of age old writing advice would be better labelled describe, don’t explain. 

It’s the difference between:

‘Freddie cried’


‘Freddie’s bottom lip quivered as a single tear rolled down his cheek’.

Roseann Biederman of Writer’s Digest tells us about a handy trick that could revolutionise your understanding of show vs. tell – she calls it the Camera Test. If the story you’re writing was being filmed, could the camera see what you’re telling the reader?

Try this: Visualise the scene you are writing in your mind, imagine you are the camera and the camera is your reader. What can you see? You need to record all action that’s relevant to your scene and story. Zoom in, pan around, zoom out. Tell your reader what’s going on but unless you’re writing from a particular character’s point of view – don’t describe anything that’s in a character’s head. Think about the cues you pick up on when you’re in a group, how do you pick up on your companions’ feelings and reactions? How do you get the feeling that someone’s happy, sad or lying to you? What are their facial expressions, hand movements and body language? Write about that but if a camera can’t see it – don’t write about it!

As with any ‘rule’ there are exceptions. Roseann goes on to explain that ‘the camera can’t see sounds or smells or temperatures or tastes, though a description of those things would not be telling.’ It is important to include these sensory details to provide a layer of experience for the reader, you want to pull your reader into your 3D world and compel them to keep turning the pages. Describe the swirl of smoke from the acrid incense burner or the sweet cinnamon haze wafting from the waffle shop but don’t explain that incense was burning on the bar or that the waffle shop smelt of cinnamon.

One final point on exceptions is that of point of view. If your story is told from the first person’s perspective, you are able to tell your reader what the character is thinking and feeling. Remember the Camera Test?  In first person POV the camera is INSIDE the character’s head so the reader can see what’s going on in there. As the author, it’s your job to make this interesting for your reader by adding situations and characters for interaction and to balance the telling with context.

Spot the Offenders

Learning to spot instances of telling is a talent that will vastly improve your writing and help you if you beta read for others.

One trick used by Janice Hardy of The Fiction University is to spot Red Flag Words. These are words that she knows appear in problem areas and groups them into Motivational Tells, Emotional Tells and Descriptive Tells. Red flag words are:

To and when

Bob ran to the shed to get the shotgun.
When Bob ran to the shed for the shotgun, the zombie was already there.

In and with

Bob screamed in fear.
Sally sighed with relief.

Realise, could see, the sound of, as

Jane staggered out of the room clutching her side, and Bob realized she’d been hurt.
Bob could see from the way Jane was bleeding that she’d hurt herself.
The sound of a sharp bang echoed across the valley.
As Bob climbed on the roof, the zombie grabbed his foot.

All of these are examples of telling where the author is telling the reader what is going on rather than allowing them to experience the action for themselves.

How do you change from tell to show?

The main tool in your arsenal against telling is the active verb. Using words that describe an action happening will ensure you change from a passive to an active voice.

Author and editor Katie Morford advises writers to add actions and body language beats to their work. This tightens the writing and engages the reader.

‘Instead of telling your reader that your character is upset, show your character fisting his hair and overturning the kitchen table.’ Katie Morford of Story for His Glory

Another way to eliminate instances of telling is to kill the dreaded adverb. Any word you use that ends in -ly better have a damned good reason to be there, they are often signs of lazy writing and you’ll attract a double lambasting. This is especially true of adverbs used to modify speech tags, known as adverbials; (she said bitterly; he said painfully). I wrote about this in my recent post Stop Using Crutch Words and Immediately Improve Your Creative Writing. 

Joe Bunting of The Write Practice advises that writers be specific. Vagueness will drag you into telling, adding details that explain the scene and add to the story will add interest and detail. Use strong verbs and sensory details to paint a picture.

Maria V. Snyder explains how writing from differing points of view (POV) can help if you’re struggling to avoid telling. Here she lists five POVs that you might want to practice with to find your ‘voice’.

The Outliers

For every rule there is always an exception, in this case it’s the internal narrative. caution that if you are writing from inside your characters head, then telling the reader what’s going on in there is the best way to work in this POV.


Creative writing is, at its heart, storytelling. Your job as an author is to balance the dramatisation of the action with the exposition needed to put the action in context.

New writers will often have a lightbulb moment in which they realise they’ve been telling all along. They will redouble their efforts and fill pages with flowery descriptions of old houses and characters’ feelings at the expense of moving the story forward. They can become afraid of telling their story without understanding that this is exactly what needs to happen. Tell your story, but do it with drama, feeling and purpose.

Discussion points:

Do you struggle with show vs. tell? 

Do you agree or disagree with any of the points above or in the linked to blog posts?

How do you proof read your writing and pick out your unwanted tells? 

How do you make sure you’re hitting the sweet spot between dramatisation and exposition?

Please get stuck in and tell us all about it in the comments below.


Over to you

I hope from this workshop you’ve learnt:

  • The difference between showing and telling
  • How to spot telling in your writing
  • How to replace tell with show

To put this into practice, try this short exercise:

Take this paragraph and rewrite it to show the action in this scene. Paste your improved version in the comments below or, even better, write a blog post and paste the link or send a ping back for us all to visit your post:

Joe heard Beth had returned to town. It had been six years since she left him humiliated at the alter and eloped with his best man in a sad movie cliche. He had just left the supermarket when he saw her walking towards him. He felt his old rage resurface together with his treacherous longing. He was relieved she hadn’t spotted him and he ducked into the bakery until she passed.

I look forward to reading your text, it can be as long or short as you want it to be. There are no rules.

This post has no closing date and you are welcome to contribute whenever you happen to be reading this.


About Nicola Auckland

Busy wife to one & mum to two. I've caught the creative writing bug, now need to practice, get awesome and write something worth reading. Simples.
This entry was posted in Hints and Tips for Writers and Bloggers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Show vs Tell – A Writers’ Workshop

  1. Pingback: Show vs Tell: a writing experiment | kirstwrites

  2. kirstwrites says:

    So, rather than, for example: “The novice writer sighed gloomily, as she picked up her red pen, and prepared to cull adverbs” something more along the lines of: “No, crap, it’s all crap!” she hissed, hurling another piece of crumpled paper towards the bin.”
    That kind of thing?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. emhyde says:

    Hi Nicola,

    I am only just getting back into writing short stories (having written only poetry for the last year or so), but I loved your advice and thought the exercise would be a good challenge for my burgeoning fiction skills. I kept it short and very much in keeping with the original passage (I’m slightly hungover so my creativity is somewhat compromised!) but I’m hoping that the “showing” style comes through. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Back In Town – A short story | In Emma World

  5. Pingback: VOTE NOW FOR THE WINNER OF THIS WEEK’S SIX WORD STORY CHALLENGE!! | Sometimes Stellar Storyteller

  6. mkwilson says:

    Thanks for the great advice. I worry (obsess) over this all the time. It was great to practice with this exercise, though as usual I’m ambivalent about the results:

    Beth before him on the street, his heart skipped a beat, his mind transposed the memory upon this new version. At this distance there weren’t any changes that he could see. His breath returned as his heart hammered, the sweat on his palms slick as he clenched his fists. Had she seen him? She was looking in the shop windows. He knew she’d be biting her lip. Even at the distance and after six years she hadn’t changed that much.

    Did Tommy know her better than he did? He shouldn’t have thought about Tommy. Their betrayal burned his throat, Joe and Tommy’s friendship had been longer than either of their relationships with Beth. And Tommy had thrown it away. Was he here too? Joe’s pulse throbbed at his temple, he heard the internal echo of his teeth grinding. His slick fists tightened, his short nails digging into his palms.

    Ducking into the bakery, he took a deep breath, willing his heart to slow down.
    “Charlie, can I go out the back?”
    Charlie looked from Joe to the front the front door and back. He raised an eyebrow and shrugged.
    “Yeah, sure.”
    “Thanks mate.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard isn’t it? I love how you made the story your own.

      I find that the camera test really helps me to go back and edit out those accidental explanations I always tend to add in.

      I deliberately wrote the exercise in third person as one tip for this particular rewrite would have been to change over to first person so you can get away with a certain amount of telling. Another tip would be to add characters in so they can have a conversation about what’s going on. That way you won’t slip inside someone’s head accidentally if you’re in third person.

      I hope you enjoyed testing the grey matter! Thanks for joining in.

      Nicola x

      Liked by 1 person

      • mkwilson says:

        Thanks Nicola. I agree about adding another character; I hadn’t thought of that. Though I prefer an element of inner voice because reading for me is about understanding the whys and you can’t always look at the deep whys without digging inside. You’ve certainly offered me a lot to think about.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Em says:

    A soaking wet Joe reaches the bus stop just in time to see the bus as it disappears from view. Pulling up his hood he makes himself invisible and starts walking, He doesn’t do friendly anymore.
    He reaches the supermarket which – of course – is busy despite the awful weather. Safe in an anonymous crowd, he grabs what he needs and lines up behind a couple who suddenly decide to hold hands. He grunts loudly and moves to another, longer, checkout queue.
    Dodging umbrellas and puddles, Joe makes his way to the bus stop and begins to roll himself a cigarette. He lifts his head to light it and recognises Beth as she appears from a coffee shop a few doors up the street. He had heard she was back, but the shock of seeing her walking towards him leaves him shaking. Its over 6 years since she ran off with his best man. Great mate he was, not content with taking his bride to be he’d even kept the bloody suit Joe hadn’t finished paying for.
    She is getting closer. Joe watches as she attempts to negotiate a pram one-handedly along the uneven pavement with a smile on her face. He pushes his way out of the crowd, scattering pensioners and small children as he goes.
    His 5p carrier rips as he hurries away from her and, wishing he’d forked out the extra 5p for the ‘bag for life’, he stops and tries to somehow shove the contents back in, while trying to slow his breathing. Hands appear and offer him the bottle of whisky that had rolled into the gutter along with his tin of beans and sausages. He makes for the nearby bakers shop to get away from her.
    Happiness hurts to look at.


  8. Sreeblogs says:

    Please read my short story on the paragraph. I thought of giving it a try –

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: I eloped from love | Sreeblogs

  10. Davy D says:

    An informative post Nicola. From a poetry perspective, the show v tell is important as you are working with less words to evoke a response from the reader. The key for me is how it sounds and rolls off the tongue and what pictures do they bring.

    Left at the Altar.
    Six years of pain resurface.
    Did the Best Man win?

    Liked by 3 people

  11. djemmand says:

    Thank you for the great advice.


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