I am working on a story written from roaming but-limited 3rd person POV. That is, different parts of the story follow different characters and each block is very clear about who is being followed.

I am trying to get a clearer idea of exactly what is meant by "show, don't tell".

I originally had this sentence (from the POV of a guy being physically altered against his will by an alien device):

When he woke the next morning the dread was back like a rock sitting low in his guts. What would he look like now?

I have since changed it to:

The dread was back the next morning, a boulder sitting low in his guts. What would he look like now?

Is my understanding correct that this is the sort of thing meant, or does it need to go even further and have the question become an explicit character thought ("What's it going to be today?"), even though the entire block is his perspective?

3 Answers 3


If you want to show that your character wakes up the next morning instead of telling it you can show how he experiences it, e.g.:

His mom held the ringing phone out to him, urging him to take it, but he couldn't. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't move his arms. And then he seemed to be drawn away from his mom and she began to fade and he became aware that it was the phone on his nightstand that was ringing. He fumbled for it and stared at the screen with bleary eyes. 5:30, it said and, below that, Peter. He groaned. The dread was back in his gut...

There are different opinions on what it means to show-don't-tell, some of them listed in the Wikipedia article. Chuck Palahniuk, for example, recommends to replace all thought verbs (knows, thinks, etc.) with a description of "the physical actions" of the character. His article gives examples for this.

If you wanted to go so far as to show emotions and thoughts – in your example, the dread and the question – instead of telling them, you could try to show what a character perveives and does inside their mind. For you example, this might look something like the following:

... He groaned. A sinking feeling pulled down inside his chest and settled heavily low in his gut like a boulder. An image of Peter waving and walking away towards a waiting Chesna rose in his mind. He tried to reshape the image with grey hair and wrinkles, but they looked wrong on Peter's youthful face.

As you can see, there is a limit to what you can reliably show. In my example it remains unclear to the reader what feeling causes the sinking and heavy sensation. It could be dread, but also excitement or sadness. We don't really have the words to describe what goes on physiologically inside a person when they have emotions. It also remains unclear what the viewpoint character does when he tries to age the image of Peter from his memory.

You probably can write better than I can, but if you don't name things the possibility is there that your readers will interpret your showing differently than you intended it and come to different conclusions.

Also, showing thoughts and emotions has an externalizing effect: If we don't name emotions and directly cite a character's thoughts, we distance ourselves from the character and look at them more from the outside, rather like an alien who doesn't understand thoughts and emotions. Describing only actions and perceptions instead of naming the mental processes that correspond to them may seem like the story is told by a behavioral scientist who observes the behavior of an animal species that he doesn't understand and tries to make sense of.

Showing, therefore, in my opinion, shouldn't be overdone. It is not a hard rule that must be followed at all times. As I see it, it can be a useful supplement to other techniques (such as naming emotions and citing thoughts), but cannot completely replace them always. Showing suits certain scenes or genres better than others. In a romantic love story, with a lot of interiority, I wouldn't attempt to show-don't-tell what goes on inside the characters. But in a more action oriented narrative it my help readers experience the events along with the viewpoint character.


Show Don't Tell comes originally from the writing of live theater plays.

The idea there is, as much as possible, do not have a character or narrator TELL the audience something you can SHOW the audience. For example, if character John is a chain smoker and always stinks of cigarettes, you don't have Alice TELL Betty that. Just SHOW that: John always has a cigarette in his hand or mouth, lights the next one from the end of the last, flicks ashes indiscriminately, and non-smokers wrinkle their noses if he gets too close.

In written fiction, the principle is the same: Except in fiction, your job as a writer is to build up this imagery in their imagination, your words on the page should be building a movie in their head. But better than a movie, sight and sound are not our only senses. The things you say should be imaginable.

The line "dread like a rock sitting low in his gut" is good, that evokes the sensation of dread (as opposed to just saying "full of dread").

That is "showing, not telling," for fiction. In a movie script, we'd rely on the actor to show dread or fearfulness, instead of just saying "I dread this," or "I'm terrified." That is the actor's job, to show emotion.

In fiction, it is your job to show emotion via imagery and allusion, as you have done. By describing what the character is doing, how they are doing it.

"His hand was shaking as he took the vial."

You should be imagining the set and characters in your head as you progress through the scene, like a fly in the room, and you are trying to reproduce the essentials the reader needs to imagine a reasonable copy of that scene in their head.

That immersion, that flow, is what we as writers are striving to achieve in our readers. That immersion is the joy of reading, going hours and losing track of time while reading.

"Show don't Tell" means do not interrupt that flow to give readers something "out of scene" that they are supposed to memorize and remember.

BTW, this is why infodumps do not work. There is no scene to imagine. This is why "talking heads" don't work, there is no scene to imagine. The same with long soliloquies.

We must constantly be propping up an unfolding scene in the reader's imagination. There should always be new stuff for them to be imagining.


There are some great answers here, so I'll simply add something I recently wrote another example of show don't tell.

As she passed the crops and skirted the long fence toward the junction in the dirt road, Skye had the sudden need to pull off to the side of the road and jump off the bike. She crouched down to the ground and closed her eyes in fear. It felt as if she was plummeting from the sky and was holding on for dear life.

Heaving breaths forced their way in and out of her lungs. She couldn’t keep up. Her chest felt like it had a thick rubber band tightening around it. Her eyes opened and she focused on the red soil beneath her. The deep breaths kept coming, but she could feel the intensity and frequency abating.

All of a sudden the tightening on her chest let go its hold. It was over. She took in a few long inhalations to catch her breath and wiped her watering eyes.

Can you guess what she might be going through? A panic/anxiety attack. It's the kind of thing you might watch in a movie, for example, Tony Stark's first anxiety attack in Iron Man 3 comes to mind. It wasn't until he jumps in his suit that we get an answer from Jarvis, but Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of the anxiety attack hits the audience without any need of immediate explanation or guessing by the character.

He shows the intense emotion and only later is it told to us exactly what it might be.

So, sometimes it may be prudent to show-then-tell, just to make it clear (even if mostly to the character themselves) what was just shown. In my own example, Skye knows what just happened when it ends, so we hear her own understanding.

Skye looked up and around her. It was quiet. Bright, coloured shapes of trees and dull blue sky stood nearby as silent witnesses. Then tears came and she wept.

What was that? she asked herself, but she knew what it was. On the ship, she had not experienced panic, just the adrenaline of the moment then utter emptiness and later sadness.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.