Show Don’t Tell #3

“Show, don’t tell”, right? Here’s an example that illustrate the difference between showing and telling.

The Before paragraph is telling us. The After paragraph is showing.


“There’s a lot I haven’t told you,” he said nervously. (1)

“Tell me,” she said, stepping backward away from him. (2)

“I have secrets,” he looked into her eyes, trying to see if she was afraid or not. (3)

“Like what?” She demanded with strength. (4)

“Like this,” he said, moving close and wrapping his hand behind her neck, staring deep into her eyes, and hesitating only once before she kissed him. (5)

1. This is a typical case of using an adverb where an action would work better. Adverbs are fine–occasionally. What you’ll find more often than not, though, is that you can nix the adverb and insert an action that will make the scene really feel alive.

2. When you have dialogue, use Ctrl+F to find all the places you use “said, “. That way, you’ll find things like this where you’re tacking action onto a dialogue tag. In almost every case, you can get rid of the tag and keep the action. (Also, “backward away from him” is redundant.)

3. “he looked” is not a dialogue tag. Don’t use actions as dialogue tags. Characters are always “trying” to do something. Trying to escape, trying to speak, trying to do X and Y. Rework those sentences so that the character is actually doing the action. Then you can tell us if the character failed or not.

4. “she demanded” IS a dialogue tag, so the “she” is lower-case, not capitalized.

5. This combines a couple issues. First, you have the same problem as number 2. Secondly, there are way too many actions in this sequence to all be thrown together with the dialogue. Either parse it out into distinct sentences, or separate it from the dialogue tag and see if it flows better.


“There’s a lot I haven’t told you.” A bead of sweat itched its way down his forehead. (1)

She stepped back, crossing her arms. “Tell me.” (2)

“I have secrets.” He searched her eyes for the trace of fear he knew he would find. (3)

“Like what?” She remained unflinching. (4)

He moved closer. “Like this.” He slid a gentle hand around the back of her neck, pulling her closer. He found no hint of fear, nothing but strength in her firm gaze. He breathed against her lips, unsure for a moment.

She took the invitation, and she kissed him. (5)

1. This separates the action and the dialogue. But because they’re on the same line, we know they’re from the same person.

2. Here, her actions show withdrawal, defensiveness, and we can see that she’s demanding it instead of being told.

3. This action gives us his expectations of the situation more clearly. It gives us that sense of him “trying” to do something.

4. See note 2. Also, “remained unflinching” is a bit of a cop-out, because while it does give us a continuing sense of strength, it doesn’t give us any hard details to work with.

5. Not that I’m not a fan of italics, but the previous version of this line was pushing the role reversal in our faces a bit. In this version, we get that change in the actions themselves.

Additional Notes: Depending on where this scene is taking place, it’s a good idea to give a sense of the world around them in addition to their exchange. It’ll keep readers firmly planted in the setting instead of getting lost in dialogue.

What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph in order to show us the scene’s emotions? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better?

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