Jillian 34 – Some More Writing Notes ‘Show Don’t Tell’

December 23, 2015 | By Colin | Filed in: Our Jillian.

Jillian 34 – Some More Writing Notes 'Show Don't Tell'

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This next bit,” Jillian started out enthusiastically, “is the bees knees. It is, in my humble opinion,” she said (by the way Jillian is the least humble person I know), “the essence that moves a novel from readable and enjoyable to pulling of teeth kind of excruciatingly horrible not on my watch nonsense.”

Now as I read what you wrote from our last little chat I realised I had broken this rule all the time. But I guess since this is a blog about me that is excusable.”

Show Don't Tell

The real deal,” she went on, “is Show Don't Tell. 'Telling' states facts or observations. 'Showing' invites much deeper understanding.”

Show the reader through the way your words work on their minds what you want them to see, hear or feel; don't just tell them about it.

The idea is if you tell someone something, they might remember it and they might believe it -- or they might not. If you show them it so that they can see it in their own mind's eye, they are more likely to remember it and, more importantly, believe it.”


Now she was on a wild run, “In public speaking we talk a lot about VAK. That is Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic. We must tailor our speeches to appeal to all these areas or we may miss the very audience members we really need to engage. Our writing must follow the same principles.”

I am breaking the rules hear again,” she said, “this is all telling. but since it can be considered a learning exercise 'cause you so need this information looking at some of your latest writing efforts, and when our goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage, then TELLING does the job rather well — particularly if it’s part of an overall strategy. In this case teaching you to write a tad better than before.”

That being the case,” I said, let's jump to the chase. What does this all mean? Give me some examples.”

What does it Mean?

OK.” she agreed, “but rather than re-invent the wheel I'll quote a few examples from my readings on the topic.”


And off she went. Telling not showing. But I got the point.

Basically we need more detail, especially dialogue and action. We need to know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our imaginary world.

For example, Instead of saying Molly is a wonderful person, say Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She's the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone -- man, woman or child -- at any-time.

And again, Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys

But,” she continued, “Avoid using creative dialogue tags (crooned, sputtered etc). It is cheap. It is telling, not showing. Let the power of your dialogue and the accompanying action show your reader the tone of voice and the emotion. Don't tell them.”


Still nothing stopped her. A teacher in control of her audience and so much involved in her subject it was very informative, and a joy to watch an expert at work.

Here are some examples from a writing tipster Dawn Copeman. Some of her articles can be found on Writing World (An excellent website for writers of all persuasions and from beginners to those who have been 'at it' for a while and need a boost.)

Tell: The ground floor, rented room was tiny, damp and obviously uncared for.

Show: "As he entered the room from the hallway the first thing he noticed was the fusty smell: a combination of mould, damp and stale cigarette smoke. There were snail trails across the worn, brown, cord carpet that covered what little floor space there was. Opposite the doorway, pushed up against the wall, was a single bed, covered with a duvet but no duvet cover and a flat, tobacco-stained pillow.”

Can you feel the difference?“She asked.

Before I had a chance to process the information and answer the question she was off again.

Let's continue. More details

Squeezed into the corner of the room at the foot of the bed was a chest of drawers. On top of the drawers was a single electric hotplate. Opposite this was a sink piled high with dirty pots with a toothbrush just visible, peeking out through the handle of a mug. Facing the bed was a small table with a fold up-chair. On top of the table was an overflowing ashtray and yesterday's newspaper. Behind the door stood a mouldy wicker waste bin full of ash and cigarette ends."

In case I hadn't received the message loud and clear she went on, “In tell you get a fleeting glance of the room; in show you begin to see it.”

And even more.

Sometimes you can do a half show-half tell. This is where you get a character to describe another person -- that way they are showing and you're telling. "I'd be careful around him Cheryl, if I were you. He's a sly one that one, he can't be trusted."

Because a character has said it, it somehow makes it appear more real to the reader than if we'd just written "Tom was sly and couldn't be trusted.”

Still more from Dawn.” She continued.

When to tell, not show!

If you show don't tell all the time, your word count will be way too high, and in a novel the reader may get bored of all the 'padding'. No-one wants to be able to see every part of every building or every scene that clearly.

So you tell the things that are of no real importance to the story but are necessary to move the story along.

'The doorbell rang.' Unless you're telling 'A Christmas Carol' the type of doorbell is totally irrelevant and can be told not shown.

'Mary picked up the remote control and turned the television back on'. Again, we don't need to know anything more about these things so telling will suffice.”

Now we get to the dot points. Wondered when that would happen.

Some other points to keep in mind as you boldly go.

  • Choose specific, informative details that show your point
  • Encourage the reader’s involvement
  • Show with emotional language
  • Give the reader a reason to feel your emotion
  • Showing prefers the specific to the general”


We have 5 senses,” she continued, “and we must invoke some or all these in our readers wherever possible. And remember feelings for the kinesthetic among us.”

Grinding Axes

Many first timers,” she explained, “have an axe to grind and want us to feel like they do about a particular personal, environmental or political issue and they write a novel about it. Usually full of long passages which give us the information we MUST know and the story is lost in the explanation. A reader will put the book down and probably never return to it in these cases.

But it can be done. Reference the 'The Girl …' series by Stieg Larsson. #ourjillian

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