Show It, Don’t Say It

There is a rule most writers follow in order to make a story interesting and entertaining. The axiom is: Show, Don’t Tell. I believe this is true not only in writing- no matter the genre – but also in life.

For example: take a minute and think of the common phrase, “I love you!” Instead of telling someone you love them, how can you show it? Take a minute and come up with some answers to that question . . . .

I thought of several things just off the top of my head: a kiss; flowers for no reason at all; packing the dishwasher without being asked; filling up the car with gas so someone else doesn’t have to; preparing dinner and then cleaning up afterwards. Now obviously, I’m not advocating not saying, “I love you!” to those who matter in your life. But there are times when it seems the phrase is worn out and overused.

In writing, I can simply say, it was snowing, and the wind was blowing. However, how much more effective would it be to say, Brian had trouble walking because the snow up to his knees. He hunched his shoulders to the wet and the cold, and searching into the distance was impossible. Worse, he didn’t know if he’d be able to pull the trigger, because his fingers were frozen and still. (from Spiral Into Darkness)

Doesn’t the description of Brian in the snow paint a better picture? Doesn’t it place you in the forest with him? Perhaps because of a previous life experience, you might picture it vividly, and you might even find yourself shivering.

Here is another example. In my recent book, Betrayed, Brett and Brian are on the Navajo Nation Reservation, a place neither one had been before. For those of you who have traveled or visited, you know there is a lack of water. The heat is intense. The landscape is red dirt and hills, mesas and buttes. Now, that’s one description. If you find it plain or boring, you’re right. It is.

Instead, this is what I wrote: The two boys turned and stood side by side as they looked out over the valley. Nothing moved. No hawks or other birds. No antelope, elk, or deer. No jackrabbits. Nothing. Not even a dust devil, because there wasn’t even a breeze. Just endless expanse of red dirt, sage, scrub, and cactus. Some boulders and outgrowth in haphazard patterns. Some sort of tree, pine, Brian thought, grew in irregular patterns like hair on a balding man’s head. Beyond and behind them sat hills, buttes, and mesas, as if they were judging all who dared to trespass.

Which version would you rather read? Which was the more interesting version? You’ve answered the question, What is meant by show, don’t tell? The idea is to place the reader into the story. If successful, the reader walks the land, sees the hawk circling overhead. The reader feels the heat and the stillness. It doesn’t matter if you’ve you’ve never been to the Navajo Nation Reservation. If the writer is successful, as you read, you’re there!

Here is another example from Spiral Into Darkness. It is a passage from the near-ending. Brian has a job to do: protect his family and protect himself from an intruder.


Brian wasn’t scared. He certainly wasn’t excited or happy, not like when he went deer hunting. He didn’t know what he felt, but he knew he felt . . . different. This night he was hunting a man who had a gun, and he knew the man, whoever it was, wouldn’t be afraid to use it.

He also knew that without George, it would be up to him to keep this man away from the house and away from the others. He loved them, all of them, especially Bobby, and he was determined to prevent anyone from hurting them . . . him.

Brian didn’t know how much of a lead this man had. Lead or not, Brian knew the woods and knew the family property, and perhaps, Momma knew the woods and property even better. He and Momma moved as a team. He felt it.

And he felt something else. He couldn’t describe it, but he felt he was being watched. Nothing spooky or malevolent, nothing sinister. Not at all. None of those things. Just that he was being watched, and he felt at peace. Weird.

He didn’t struggle, but he moved slowly, the snow already up to his knees. Maybe a dog thing or maybe just a Momma thing, but she negotiated the snow with relative ease. She led, and Brian followed. Every now and then, the big dog would stop and soundlessly stare off in the distance.

            “Momma, let’s move,” Brian urged in a whisper.

They moved onward, and this time, the two of them halted together. He heard him and so did Momma.

Even with the blanket of snow, off in the distance and not too far away, Brian heard twigs snap and a curse. Brian guessed the man was not used to tramping around in the woods, something he and the guys looked forward to and did on a regular basis. And he guessed the man was not a proper hunter, something he, George, and Brett were.

Brian judged the man was thirty to forty yards ahead, which meant that he was near the path that ran between the house and the Limbach property. He needed to move quickly in order to stop him from getting that far.

“Momma, come,” Brian whispered as he tried to take the lead. Momma wouldn’t let him, but sensing his urgency, she moved faster.

Quite a bit going on in that chapter. You have a picture of Brian’s mood without me telling you. You get a picture of his relationship with his dog, Momma. You get a picture of the climate and setting. All done purposely. Again, I showed you; I didn’t tell you.

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