The Business and Craft of Writing: Show, Don’t Tell, Or Get the Reader Up Close and Personal



Something you might here frequently as a writer is “Show, don’t tell.” As a newer writer, I got so irritated hearing that. What does that even mean? HOW do you do that? And more importantly, how is that any different from what I’m trying to do right now?

As a slightly-less new writer, I think I’m starting to understand.

I had the most amazing opportunity to take Brandon Sanderson’s writing workshop a few years ago and part of that included getting personal feedback from him. One week while he was sitting in with my critique group, we got to this section of my then-current WIP:

Night was falling as they emerged from the swamp. They were exhausted.

“Do we keep going or do we stop for the night?” Dragony asked.

Shinabar looked down. Era hadn’t stirred yet and she was paler than normal. “Keep going and hope that we don’t run into my men.”

The ambassador looked at him. “Let’s stop for just a couple of minutes. You look like death warmed over.”

“I feel like it too, and I’m not the only one who feels that way,” he warned.

The ambassador nodded. “Give her to me then. We’ll be able to move faster.” Shinabar hesitated a second before relinquishing her. Immediately, they took off again.


Dawn was breaking. “He’s back!”

“Landon! He’s back!”

Landon sighed in relief. “Good. Now I can kill him.”

“It doesn’t look like you’ll have to.”

Dragony and Shinabar staggered into camp; each leaning on the other for support while holding Era.

Men rushed forward to catch them as they collapsed.

This was at the end of what should have been an intense fight-as-we-take-flight scene in a swamp.

Brandon looked at me and told me something along the lines of  “You need to show more here. You’re telling me they’re exhausted. I want to feel their exhaustion. I want to feel the mud clinging to their boots, making it difficult to walk. I want the mosquitoes buzzing around their heads. I want to feel the night getting colder as the sun goes down.”

Ok. Yeah, I can do that. Showing means adding more sensory details. Easy peasy.


That wasn’t good enough. And for the few years, I’d turn in something *awesome* for critiques and get told,

“Yeah, you need to show more here.”

Seriously. I give up.

And then I took an amazing class on “Tell, Don’t Show” by Josi Kilpack at the American Night Writers Association conference last September.

Turns out, I had only the first part of show, don’t tell.

Part A of “Show, Don’t Tell” is to engage the senses, which is what Brandon taught me.

Part B is to “avoid reminding us these are the character’s senses (i.e.

Using the example Josi gave, the difference between what I was doing and showing is the difference between example 1 and example 2.

  1. He watched as the sun slipped behind the horizon, taking the
    last traces of warmth with the light.
  2. The sun slipped behind the horizon, taking the last traces of
    warmth with the light.

See the difference? Feel the difference?

In example 1, we’re being told what He is experiencing. We’re focused on him and what he’s doing (watching the sun).

In example 2, all of our attention is on the sunset. We’ve all experienced a sunset. (If you haven’t, I’m terribly sorry. Your first assignment is to look up when sunset is for your town and then to go outside 5 minutes before then.)

We know what it feels like to see the sun go down. We know what it feels like as it gets darker. We know what it feels like as it gradually gets colder.

The writer doesn’t have to spend a lot of time describing those sensations. We as readers have already experienced them. Simply shifting our focus from the character to what is happening changes our experience. We’re more intimately involved in the story.

Part C is knowing when to show and when to tell. Honestly, that depends on what your end-goal for the scene is. And I can’t help you with that.