Show Don’t Tell: It’s All in Your Reader’s Mind

We’ve all heard it, we’ve all read it, we’ve all been confused about it.

Show don’t tell.

How can letters scrambled on a page show you anything? The honest truth is they can’t. They’re only half of the “showing” process.

Trigger Words

A trigger word is something that flips a switch in your mind. “Showing” in writing is simply finding the right trigger words and using them well. Think of words like little boxes; each one showing its contents when read: such as lurch or drip.

These words have unique feelings and connotations attached to them. Every reader will view them differently depending on their own experiences. The key is finding the words that have the strongest triggers to fool your reader into doing the imagining for you.

The world of your story isn’t taking place on a page. It’s happening in your reader’s mind.

Let’s take the word: Woods

That word means something to you; probably opens up some sights, sounds, and smells in your imagination. For some situations, the word “woods” might be all you need to set your characters up for a scene. It gives you a picture, but the only feeling attached to it is supplied by the reader and the color you’ve added to your story thus far.


The woods were old.

The word “old” in connection to “woods” opens up new images and feelings. Sometimes the right adjective will be enough to tell your reader about something. Ancient, big, stupid, and evil; all bring different emotions to the front of your reader’s mind. The passive verb, “were” is what keeps this sentence from showing. Replace that with “groaned” and the sentence sings.

Not every sentence needs to “show” in your story. You need to be smart about where you tell and where you show, of course, but you can tire your reader if you show too much; and starve him if there’s too much telling.


The woods ached, nodding in the wind like tired church goers.

This sentence plays with your reader’s imagination. The woods ache, they nod, they fall asleep during long sermons. The writing is starting to show a life.

I decided to use two verbs in the sentence: ached and nodding. These are much stronger than the last verb “were” and bring actual motion. Then the addition of “tired church goers” further takes from the reader’s imagination to paint a more original picture.

So how do you do it?

The key is a strong verb. You don’t need 20 words to show something to a reader. You can do it in 2. Don’t bog your reader down with never ending descriptions of the woods. Let the woods speak for itself. The toaster may have popped, but what did it feel as the bread shot out of his head?

The apple dripped in color, waiting to be picked.
John shivered. The cold had finally eaten through his newspaper.
The gun thumped-thumped-thumped into his shoulder as casings glopped though pond scum.
Jesus wept.

Find the words that will unlock imagination and verbs that paint pictures (hint: were and was don’t). Read good writing, but the most important thing you can do:

Simply write.

Follow Isaac as he blogs about fiction, stories that count, and the future at his blog, PencilDrop