The Show Me State


Don't tell me, show me!



Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.

Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”

Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.

Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.

“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and  picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining.

Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.

Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.

If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought.

Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

28 responses to “The Show Me State

  • trixycae

    I tend to struggle with the showing concept but you’re right about cutting out superflous adverbs and adjectives. When you can’t get away with wrapping it all up with one word, the text is far much interesting. I’m editing a novel at the moment and forcing myself to delete and rewrite chunks of it. Thanks for your advice.

  • Sandy Sue

    This is my pet “teaching moment” with beginning writers. And to show by using active instead of passive verbs.

  • redjim99

    Thanks for this, very useful examples.


  • Nicole Marie

    Thank you – great examples!

    I always try to be aware of what I’m “showing” and “telling”, and sometimes I’ll just get out what it is I’m trying to say before going back and sticking in some details.

    I tend to “show” a little too much at times, dragging things out longer than they have to/should be.

    Great advice. 🙂

  • mesamendoza

    We learned this is creative writing a few weeks ago. Very effective.

  • Larkin Vonalt

    Actually, both are necessary. Read the “great writer” of your choice and you’ll find both “telling” and “showing” in action. Too much “showing” makes for very dense prose, and sometimes, less is more. Interesting exercise, though.

  • mindwarpfx

    First. Thank you for your post. AS a new writer who is trying to get better at it, this will be helpful to me and others. Thanks for your reading and looking around my blog as well. Hope to follow your blog as well.
    All the best!

  • Sara

    ‘Telling’ too much is getting to be a real bad habit of mine, and it’s particularly awful if you’re working on a script. Of course it also doesn’t help if ‘showing’ makes you too chatty either, like you said. Fine line to walk, but I guess it’s all made up for in the editing process if you lose your way. Thanks for the advice!

  • Tmso

    Excellent examples. I struggle with the whole tell vs show in the sense you suggest: when to do it and not. Thanks for the tip!

  • The Animation Station

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. I am a screenwriter, and when it comes to showing vs telling we always go with showing. Film is a visual medium, and in every screenwriting class, book or DVD I have come across they always drill into your head about showing over telling. A lot of the screenwriting material focuses on format and not so much on the emotional impact you can make by choosing your words wisely. A few years back I bought a book called “Writing for Emotional Impact” by Karl Iglesias. He is a screenwriting consultant and writer. That book has taught me so much about storytelling and driving the emotion of the characters in your scripts over plot. I think this goes for narrative writing as well. Character is what drives the story. Characters are what people remember in great writing. I love the post and I think you do a great job. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • c stuart hardwick

    I understand that many folks have trouble with the “showing”. I do not. For my current project, I have written out at least two entire chapters and at least three major sections of “showing”, complete with dialogue and so on, only to later replace the whole section with a single paragraph or line of explication.

    “Showing” draws the reader in, but the reader is only visiting the world. They don’t need, as I sometimes say, to know where you keep the toothpaste.

  • Ben

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I’ll be following yours now as well.

    I definitely agree that writers need to find a good balance between showing and telling, although I would offer this one caveat. I’m getting my PhD in Communication Studies, and one of the things I research is how vocal inflection can substantively change the meaning of a message. Inflection, however, is difficult to show. I think that there is a place for (sparing) use of telling in describing how a character said something, when it is meaningful for the story.

    • c stuart hardwick

      I agree, but this does not have to be done in the attribution. As with so many things, it is good to have a “bag of tricks” at hand.

      Which is more compelling?

      1.”I wouldn’t,” he said angrily.

      2. His brow furrowed and the finger drew tight against the trigger.
      “I wouldn’t.”

  • ruelgaviola

    Hi Sue, I’m new to your blog — great stuff here! Your advice re: when to show vs tell is right on the money. I primarily write non-fiction, but posts like this are very useful. I’m looking forward to going through your archives. Thanks for following my blog.

  • lenleatherwood

    Good advice, Sue. Thanks so much for the reminder.

  • simplyenjoy

    Thanks for following my blog! I look forward to reading more great writing tips in your posts. This was definitely useful.

  • Kyle

    really great tips and so well put across

  • cafegirlchronicles

    I love these examples. Just when I make the commitment to show not tell I fall into the trap of exposition. Thank you Sue for the reminder!


  • Maria Caruso

    Her eyes brightened up, over a hot cup of coffee, she smiled, and her fingers reached the keyboard: “I must thank Sue Healy!” then she leaned back on the chair. “I had forgotten that…”

    Ciao and Grazie!
    – Maria

  • sfbell09

    A standard lesson which is regularly forgotten. Terrific examples. That final paragraph, just punched me in the gut. Gotta go work on a lot of revisions.

  • Kim-Lee P.

    Just what I need to read today. I just completed a semi-fiction story for teens and that was one of my biggest problems–telling too much and showing too little. I did get the problem fixed, but if I had read a blog post like this one sooner, it would have saved me a few months of editing. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Are you a writer? « Almost Out of Ink…

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  • laila Alive

    Thanks so much for these tips, and the examples – very helpful!

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