Do You Really Know How To Show, Don’t Tell?

Let me preface this post by saying, I found this generator that rates post titles. Which is why this title seems a bit cocky. It rated high and I’m using it as a test. For those of you who are new to my site and don’t know me, I assure you I do not think I’m better than anyone. This is only a test to see if higher rated titles really drive more traffic. Stay tuned for a post on this if it works. If it doesn’t…crickets.


Yesterday marked my deadline for completing the pre-edits for Marred. “Pre-edits” seems like it would be an easy task. It wasn’t. Once the track edits begin in two weeks I’m not allowed to change anything other than what the editor points out. So I wanted to go through the manuscript…one…more…time…and improve it to the best of my ability. I went word-by-word, line-by-line, scene-by-scene…and checked scene structure, MRUs, and overall suspense, chose stronger verbs, deleted filler, etc. etc. And I learned something about myself. I am a perfectionist who is never happy until I’ve ripped everything apart, drove myself crazy, pulled out half my hair, beaten myself into exhaustion, and then rebuilt. Now, I’m satisfied…for two weeks…until the cycle begins again.

Is this a flaw? I think so, but it also drives me to improve.

In the pre-edits I looked for writing tics and things that dragged down the writing and/or slowed the pacing. The phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” is some of the oldest and most misunderstood advice in the industry. Show, Don’t Tell does not only mean to show a character’s action instead of naming an emotion; it goes way deeper than that.

When you write in Deep POV, like so many books today, even your narrative must Show, Don’t Tell. It should read as though the character is speaking rather than author intrusion. Years ago, books used an omniscient narrator, but today readers expect more. It is at the editing stage where you can amp your writing to the next level by concentrating on these changes.

Telling words are:

S/he thought








These words pull the reader out of the story. Think about it. We don’t think, “I wondered if the windshield could stop a bullet.” Or, “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley alone.” We just think it. As such, our stories need to reflect that.

Instead of the first example “I wondered” we need to write “When I saw the gun I ducked under the dash. Could the glass stop a bullet?”

See how more immediate it sounds? The reader remains in the story.

Let’s take the second example. Which is one of my writing tics by the way.

Instead of: “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley.”

Try: “If only I traveled my regular route home.”

Instead of: “She realized he was a creep.”

Try: “Creep.”

We are in the character’s head. Cut the fluff.

Phrases like Seemed to, Tried to, Began to…are also telling phrases. I once read a blog post where the author was ranting about characters “trying to” do things, and he rambled on and on about “Why is everyone only trying? Just do it already!” The post, comical as it was, always stuck with me. The author also happens to be correct. We can’t have our characters “trying” to do something. They do it.

While editing, I was amazed by how many times I used “tried to” or “started to”. For me, this took time to master.

For instance, in Marred I have a section of scene where the deputy sheriff, Frankie Campanelli, shoves the sheriff while he’s rising from the sofa. My first instinct was to write, “As he started to rise she shoved him back down.” There are several things wrong with this sentence, but let’s concentrate on the action. I rewrote the sentence as “He rose halfway and Frankie shoved him onto the sofa.” Less words, more immediate.

We all have our tics. Lord knows I have many. The trick is acknowledging what they are so we correct them during editing. Preferably before you submit to publishers and/or agents. I never was one to do things the “right way”, but I’m paying for it now. Now, I have a ticking clock. Whereas before I could move at my own pace. This becomes even more important if you decide to go the self-publishing route, because once you push that publish button your book is out there. Well, I shouldn’t say “more important”. You could save yourself headaches from reading rejection letters if you tighten your writing before you submit, but that is an entirely different post.

Here’s a writing tic that always cracks me up: “His eyes shot to her little black book. Was that man’s number in there?”

Body parts cannot move independently from the rest of the body. While working with my critique partner we used to laugh about this all the time. It’s easy to write this way in a first draft. Reading the above sentence makes me envision eyeballs shooting across the room and landing on a little black book. Unless you’re writing science fiction where the protagonist is a lovely robot like Lisa, my friend Craig Boyack’s creation, body parts need someone to move them.

Instead of: “His eyes shot across the room.”

Try: “His gaze shot across the room.”

Instead of: “Her arm raised and she waved.”

Try: “She waved.”

Which brings me to…

Double action

When someone waves they obviously have their hand “raised”. Same with “reach”.

Instead of: “He reached out and grabbed the candle.”

Try: “He grabbed the candle.”

Better: “He swiped the candle.”

“Grabbed” is so overused. Always better to find a specific action that paints a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind. “Swiped” shows us he moved quickly like he didn’t want to be seen.

Sensory tells

She heard






Instead of “She heard a van outside her house and froze.”

Try: “A van rumbled outside her window. She froze.”

Instead of: “She saw a dark-haired man slip through the back gate and into the yard.”

Try: “A dark-haired man slipped between the gates, into the backyard.”

Less is more.

Instead of: “She tasted his blood on her tongue and gagged.”

Try: “She gagged, choking on his blood.”

It may not seem like a big deal to use a few telling words, but it is. After you make these changes, read through your manuscript start to finish and you’ll see a marked improvement in your writing.

Honestly, I have never been more proud of my work. Marred is the best story I’ve ever written and I can hardly wait to share it with the world. I’ll let you in on a little secret…a birdie told me that the pre-release price will be 99 cents. If you want a copy of Marred, for yourself or as gift for someone else, take advantage of the sale because a few days after release it goes to full price. Not that it will break your piggy bank even then, but why not get it for a rock-bottom price? The pre-release sale begins the middle of September. I’ll post an announcement when it becomes available.

I should have a cover to show you soon. Hopefully in time for my next post. Until then, happy writing. I’m off to tear apart Timber Point to get it ready for submission. The work never stops, but it’s so much fun!

Have a wonderful week! I’m hoping to catch up on social media over these two weeks too. Why aren’t there more hours in the day? That was rhetorical. My real question to you is this…do you have any tips to share? If you’re a reader, what pulls you out of a story?

Looking for a way to commit murder? Sign up for your FREE copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters.


  1. Excellent advice. It comes natural to use these telling words, and it sure takes time and effort (as well as several rounds of edits) to stop doing it, but the result is so much better and more rewarding.

    • You’re right, Chris. It’s so easy to write these words in a first draft; much harder to detect them in a second. That’s why I like to have a list, so I can do a search for telling words and phrases and kill them where they stand. 😉

  2. Hi Sue! Per our permission situation, I scheduled this article to go live as a guest post on Oct 1st. As usual, I’ve included credit to you/bio/link back to your blog. I’m looking forward to it!

    Ryan Lanz recently posted…Which Kind(s) of Editing Does Your Novel Need?My Profile

    • That’s fine, Ryan. My new book will be available for pre-release by then, so I’ll send you a link to add to the bio once I get it. Thanks!

    • Hi Ryan, please add this bio to the bottom of the republished post. You’ll have to insert it in “text” mode for the cover to show. Thanks!

      [goodreviews isbn=9781311566508″” width=150″” height=250″” buyinfo=”on” bookinfo=”off”]A member of MWA and Sisters in Crime, Sue Coletta’s new psychological thriller, Marred, is available for pre-release at only .99 cents! Visit her website: Follow her on Twitter: @SueColetta1
      If the image doesn’t show, I’ve linked the title too, so just delete the first bracketed area.

  3. I think that’s fewer words not less words. Are italics still used to indicate thoughts? If not, why not as it seems an unambiguous way to signal the reader with out supurfalous words. Language usually evolves toward more effective expression and I haven’t heard good arguments for abandoning this convention. Have you?

    • Italics is used, but sparingly. If we used italics for every thought for our deep POV character, 3/4 of the book would be in italics. To answer your question about using more effective expression…you’re absolutely correct. We should not only use fewer words but the “best” words. However, that does not mean using a twenty-five cent word when a common word will do. These aren’t my rules. I’m sharing what I’ve learned through working with my editor. Stephen King is a big proponent of using the most effective common word, and if it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s good enough for me. Have a wonderful day, Steve.

      I should add, the only time we use italics is when the tense changes. For instance: I ambled to the corner store. When will they fix this sidewalk?

  4. Thanks for showing us. I love your style. Great post.

  5. Great post, Sue, and you know, that’s what I’m also trying to do with my WIP. The double action is a special headache of mine, I’m slicing out lots of double actions. Also lots of ‘directions’ as a friend called them (he turned and… he stood and… he looked that way… you know, this kind of stuff).
    Then, the normal stuff: then, and, but. Agh…

    This is my very first time polishing up a novel. It’s a completely differenet experience from anythign I’ve ever done before.

    I’ll keep your post in mind while polishing 😉

    • I know exactly what you mean, Sarah. You do reach a point, at least I did, where it becomes fun. Not the first time through, though. That’s a nightmare. I’m now tearing apart another ms to get ready for submission, and I’m pulling my hair out!

  6. These are all awesome gems of wisdom. If you’d like to share them some more, I’m now featuring writers talking about editing on Tuesdays over at my blog, and I’d love to feature you. Craig was actually my first victim this week if you want to check him out. 🙂

  7. Wonderful, wonderful advice. Many thanks for this excellent post!

    I’ve also noticed that short, staccato sentences help create suspense, just like long, descriptive ones help defuse it. So, in your example, “He rose halfway and Frankie shoved him onto the sofa,” I might have used “He rose halfway. Frankie shoved him onto the sofa,” if I wanted to keep the adrenaline flowing 🙂

    • You’re right about short vs. longer sentences of course. I didn’t use two shorts here because of the “emotion” of the scene. Without giving a plot “secret” away I can’t describe why this action wasn’t done in anger as you might think. And not in lust, either. You’re just going to have to read the book. ;-D

      BTW, I’m finally getting around to reading your short stories–and love them!

  8. Reblogged this on Cronin Detzz "Writer's Block" and commented:
    Great blog. Sue gives us some examples of words to watch for.

  9. Such a helpful blog post, Sue. I think it’s easy for us to fall into bad habits of telling as we write, no matter how much we know differently. It takes catching all those flaws during edits when we’re more focused on thinning out the weeds.

    I can’t wait to see your cover and I am super excited about MARRED. This was an awesome post!

  10. Great post! Your examples made it all so clear. And good luck with your books! Exciting times…

    • Oh, just wanted to ay I found that headline analyser today too, it was great fun! Mind you, the title which scored highly for me also seemed quite cocky and quite unlike what I normally write. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not, so I will be interested to hear your results. And I will be brave by following your example and carrying out a test… Good idea!

      • I must have tried thirty different titles before settling on this one (it scored the highest- 75%). But all the “good” titles seemed so cocky. That’s not my thing. I hate when people think they’re better than others, but I had to test the generator. We’ll see. It will be interesting to see what happens. Good luck with your test, too. Let me know how it goes.

    • Thank you, Ali. I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  11. Reblogged this on Entertaining Stories and commented:
    Wonderful post about show don’t tell, and how to fix it.

  12. I’m sure getting a lot of mentions today. Yours is the second blog that mentioned me today. This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve seen in a long time.

  13. Guilty of all the above 🙁

    This is great advice, Sue! So timely. I’m going to be revamping a m/s in the next week after it comes back from beta readers and you’ve really put show/tell and deep POV in an understandable light. Thanks so much!

    One thing that I’m improving on is dialogue tags. Instead of “Honestly, I have never been more proud of my work,” Sue said, putting her fingers back on her keyboard. “Marred is the best story I’ve ever written.” – I’m now writing “Honestly, I have never been more proud of my work.” Sue’s fingers were back on the keys. “Marred is the best story I’ve ever written.”

    And I’m so looking forward to reading ‘Marred’ by Sue Coletta, published author 😉

    • Ha! Love your examples, Garry! Yes, action beats are better than dialogue tags. Although, too many action beats can become tiresome too. For instance… Sue typed a word into the computer. “What was the title of that book?” She gave up and stretched out on the sofa. Niko loomed over her. “What are you doing?”
      She stretched. “Nothing.”
      He took one step to the left. “When’s supper?”
      She reclined. “I don’t know…five?”
      See how it can get monotonous? A little “he said” goes a long way in this instance. Like anything else it comes down to flow.
      I’m so glad you’re excited to read Marred!

  14. This is a great post for me because part of my editing process is to “search” offending words in my WIP. The words that you provide are easily searchable. I have a list of lame verbs, crutch words, adverbs (ly), and overused words. The list just got longer – that’s not a bad thing.

    • That’s never a bad thing. 😉 There are many others too, but all are close relatives so they’re easy to figure out from this list. Happy editing!

  15. Gosh, this is such good advice, Sue. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of ‘telling’ words, because as writers, we want to paint a picture for readers. But it’s often more powerful to put the reader into the character’s shoes. And careful word choice makes all the difference for that.

    • So true, Margot. I know my first instinct is to paint a lovely picture. Unfortunately it only causes more work down the road. When you “write tight” it makes such a huge difference. Such small changes with such massive results…the best kind of tips, IMO.

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