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Skill Builders Series #1

Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)

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Do you struggle with show, don't tell? You don't have to. 

Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you deep into one of the most frustrating aspects of writing--showing, and not telling. She'll help you understand what show, don't tell means, teach you how to spot told prose in your writing, and reveal why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) looks at what affects told prose and when telling is the right thing to do. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

Her easy-to-understand examples will show you clear before and after text and demonstrate how telling words change the prose. You'll learn how to find the right balance between description, narrative, and internalization for the strongest impact. These examples will also demonstrate why showing the wrong details can sound just as dull as telling.

This book will help you:

Understand when to tell and when to show
Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back

Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

134 pages, Kindle Edition

First published September 29, 2016

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About the author

Janice Hardy

16 books342 followers
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins.

She also writes the Grace Harper series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.

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5 stars
451 (62%)
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204 (28%)
3 stars
51 (7%)
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9 (1%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 149 reviews
Profile Image for G.H. Eckel.
Author 2 books135 followers
August 21, 2017
It's rare to find a book that can actually make a difference in your writing. If you're an author, like me, you've read your fair share of how-to books. While all of them entertain good ideas, few if any have made a real impact on my writing.

show dont tell

Not so with Janice Hardy's book. It's secret is giving you a list of "red flag" words that you'll find in your writing that highlight all of the places you're Telling not Showing.

Like everyone else, I've been told to show not tell. Of course, that's what I was doing! Not! Armed with Hardy's list of words, I can see clearly now all of the times I'm telling. After reading this book, you'll see your writing with new eyes.

If you're an author, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Julia Ash.
Author 4 books225 followers
January 15, 2018
This book is such an awesome resource! Janice Hardy takes commonly "told" advice (Show, Don't Tell) and uses clear examples to "show" what it means and how to spot it in your writing! Most importantly, she provides lists of look-for words which help flag telling prose. So happy I read this book :)
Profile Image for Olivia.
698 reviews117 followers
July 2, 2020
This book is a great tool for any writer trying to understand the much heard advice, show don’t tell. Armed with ample examples, this is a book that really takes this advice apart, making it easy to understand for new writers.
Profile Image for Steve Garriott.
Author 1 book9 followers
September 12, 2018
Good information with lots of practical recommendations for how to ferret out those pesky telling passages or at least to know when and why you choose to tell rather than show (Hardy points out there are times when telling is appropriate). A quick read and worth spending the time.
Profile Image for A. S..
Author 2 books192 followers
August 26, 2019
How could this be any less than 5 stars? One of the best writing books I've read. I've heard the advice "show, don't tell" over and over again, but NO ONE EXPLAINED WTF IT MEANT. This book did. And it does so thoroughly I feel like after only one read, I can significant elevate my writing.

It's a short book guys (~115 pages). Read it.
Profile Image for Melanie Hill.
13 reviews2 followers
March 13, 2017
This book is essential reading for all authors. I now really understand what showing and telling are and when to use them. I will read this book every year just to refresh and remind myself. I am looking forward to using the check list and the helpful descriptions to pick out the red flag words.
Profile Image for Sten Rosendahl.
Author 8 books31 followers
June 22, 2019
This is THE book to read if you need to know what “show, don’t tell” really is about. It does not only have a lot of illustrative real-world examples, it goes further to teach you a lot more about how dialogue, perspective and the level of detail affects the reader of a story.
Profile Image for Heidi McGill.
Author 9 books760 followers
April 20, 2022
Whether you write in the first or third person, this resource is a game-changer. As an avid reader, I easily recognize how dialog enhances the reading experience. As an author, it isn’t as easy as some master storytellers make it look. Straightforward with easy-to-understand explanations and examples, this book is a must-have resource.
Profile Image for Jorge Rodighiero.
Author 3 books45 followers
August 14, 2017
Simply amazing. The best book I have read to improve my writing. Brief and to the point.
Profile Image for Jacquelynn Lyon.
Author 5 books55 followers
April 12, 2022
At the very start I was a bit disappointed because I felt the foundations for what show, don't tell was confusing and less organized than I wanted. Specifically, the "I reached over to pick up the cup" versus "I reached over and picked up the cup" example. I realized later that this was a reasonable lesson, but I wasn't there yet and a bit lost and bored.

HOWEVER, then came these examples:


“Bob was around thirty, but he felt older from constantly running from zombies. He left the rundown hotel room he and his wife Sally had been staying in and lofted a pair of worn duffel bags into the back of an old pickup truck. He sighed and stared at what was left of their supplies. I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition, he thought. They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew was overrun with the undead, and he didn’t want to be caught unprepared. Sally had begged him to take another route since it was so dangerous, but the distress call they’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Bob also knew you didn’t ignore other survivors.”


“I guess thirty’s the new eighty. I sighed and rubbed my knee, hoping we had some ice in the cooler, but no such luck. I left yet another crappy hotel room and lofted my duffel bags into the back of a pickup that probably was nearly eighty. It would need parts soon, and we could use a few more boxes of ammo before we hit Amarillo. Reports said it was overrun with undead, and with our luck, we’d sure as spit break down there. Sally begged me to go round south, but that distress call we’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Nobody ignored survivors, not even us.”

And it blew my mind. Like, a little (!!!) popped up over my head. This was the first time in a long time that I felt really challenged by something in terms of writing and it renewed this fire in me. I flew through the rest of the book as I wanted to take this idea apart and fully GET it. I need to do a lot more practice I think before I internalize these ideas, but I am thrilled overall to have my love of writing re-vamped by this book.
Profile Image for Bill Tillman.
1,644 reviews64 followers
February 10, 2017
Don't publish without dogearing this book! This is a book to battle really mean villians, those TELLING WORDS. But a real cheat sheet at the back of the book would have been a great plus!
Profile Image for Cecily Paterson.
Author 27 books123 followers
March 25, 2017
Really helpful

This was the best treatment of this topic I've seen. I'll be recommending it to the writers I edit and coach.
Profile Image for Alma.
112 reviews48 followers
February 7, 2020
This is plain bad advice that generalizes poorly and doesn't bother to work through finer points. Advising against exposition at all costs and with complete disregard for the genre is a recipe for disaster in anything but the most vanilla setting. For example:

The basic definition of exposition sums up the pitfalls nicely: writing or speech intended to convey information or to explain.

That's also a definition for told prose. In writing terms:

It's when the science fiction protagonist gets into an anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.

It's when the romance protag has a date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past. [...]

Notice the key phrase: the story stops.[....]

However, sometimes you need to explain things to reads so they can understand and enjoy the story, and there's no natural way to write it without spending pages dramatizing something you could just explain in a line or two.

Explaining the story makes readers think you're insulting their intelligence. You don't think they can "get it" unless you explain it, and that can be a little condescending. If you've ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is.

Trust your readers to get it.

No, I don't recall I ever had anyone explain a joke to me unless I actually asked. I live in a country where we don't explain jokes to each other. Maybe I would unsolicitedly explain a joke to someone who's displaying that dumb look at the back of their crossed eyes that tells you they really didn't get the joke and are in danger of getting brainstem hernia from the effort to understand it.

I also live in a country where good writers don't put fucking common words and phrases between scare quotes like they're figurative or something, i.e. "get it". I think Mark Twain said the job of a writer is to find the right word and use it, not pussyfoot with putting words between scare quotes and inviting readers to guess their meaning. That's what a lazy writer does. If Janice decided to use informal voice in her writing, there's no need for the quotes. If she's angling for formal voice, she needs to whip out her thesaurus and use the big smart long words like understand or comprehend.

Also the writer acknowledges that sometimes you need to deliver exposition and then backtracks immediately and contradicts herself saying to let reads guess. If it's something I appreciate, it's consistency and coherence. Oh wait... was it the other way around? Actually I don't know what I meant to say so I'll just let readers guess. It's not that I contradict myself, I just lost track of what I... what was I saying?

Now back to the stupid formal categorization error taking place in this stupid advice book.

Here's the kicker. Putting a romance backstory anyone can guess and that can be summarized as 'MC has issues' on the same level as a device that requires serious suspension of disbelief like an anti-gravity car makes it clear Janice Hardy isn't a scifi reader and shouldn't give advice in that area. If there's something as cool as an anti-gravity car in the story – if there's something as cool as anti-gravity in that universe – I want to know how it looks like and why it works. Just because it's not interesting to Janice Hardy it doesn't mean it's not interesting to anyone. In fact, scifi and fantasy readers read that sort of stuff for the car or else they'd be satisfied with some non-scifi book. If it's not achieving that worldbuilding, it's not scifi, it's just a young adult retelling of Jane Eyre or Cinderella with scifi trappings that make little sense and bring nothing to the story.

And there's the – I know, unbelievable! – possibility that the reader can't in fact guess the rules of the universe. This is strangely common in universes with steep learning curves like any and all secondary and alternate world scifis and fantasies . Wow, what a concept! not being able to guess the rules of a universe that's not yours and whose whole gimmick is that it works differently! For instance, I have a setting where police is corrupt and the whole upper class is protected by diplomatic immunity, so the protag doesn't bother calling the police. If I don't put that exposition in between lines of dialog to outright say it, you know what I get? Plot holes. I'd get reviews saying that the choices made by the protag didn't make sense. I'd get plot breaking problems. All because there are still authors out there who think that exposition is the same as infodumping and, as such, cannot be realized nicely even in principle because it's blasphemy against the gods of writing. Would I want to spend a scene to dramatize the corrupt police and society in that world given the protag already knows about it and it does nothing for the plot? Clearly not. So I should just let readers guess, right? Of course. It's not the writer's job to worldbuild, let the readers do the heavy lifting. It's not like there are books out there where like half the reviews say the setting isn't sufficiently worldbuilt because of skimping on exposition and descriptions in the name of showing, not telling.

My advice: use exposition. To avoid coming across as boring or condescending or whatever, the solution is to use the rule of cool and make it the most interesting thing the readers came across today. Alternatively make it short. It's your job as a writer to come up with fun ways to deliver exposition or with streamlined ways to say it fast – just be aware that the possibility is there and it's your responsibility to leverage it.

Rule of Cool : Err on the side of cool.

If you're writing a book that doesn't require any exposition at all, it's best to stop. It's probably too simplistic and we've already seen every part of it elsewhere. If we're familiar with all the tech, every plot device, and the protag's motivation, then it's probably another werewolf vampire romance.

The advice about the anti-gravity car should actually read – in an alternate universe where books on writing aren't full with bad advice – as: if you have a cool car using a cool technology, make a scene where you show the MC lovingly eyeballing the car and checking out the engine before the chase scene. Hell, make them the inventor! That way you get some nice characterization in and do some worldbuilding. Or describe the car when the MC gets in for the chase scene and then demonstrate the tech during the chase. If you need complex scientific explanation as to why it works in the first place, like a second dimension of time or a fifth force we don't have in our universe, better just explain it before the chase scene so it doesn't break your pacing and readers have the info nicely lined up when they need it. That way they won't be pulled out of the story by their disbelief at the poorly set up setting.

Checking author's publication history reveals Goodreads scores of 3.8, which aren't great. 2* reviews say the author plots too tightly leaving no room for characterization or backstory, which demonstrates precisely how phobia of exposition will ruin a book. Her secondary characters and antagonists are said to blend together, and the lack of reaction scenes makes the tone flat, single-note. There's a moral conflict left untreated and people were confused about the socio-political organization of the setting.

Bottom line : forbidding exposition is bad advice. Good advice is saying how to do it well.
Profile Image for Helena Ferry.
114 reviews1 follower
September 21, 2019
Jag tar mig sällan igenom böcker om skrivande, hur mycket jag än tänker att jag borde. Jag brukar tröttna för att de ofta blir långrandiga när det berättas samma sak på väldigt många olika sätt... Men den här boken är så kort att det inte gör så mycket att jag upplever lite samma sak med den också. :) Jag läste ut den under min och Malins skrivarhelg på deras lantställe, nästan hela boken under en förmiddag.

Show, don't tell är något jag behöver jobba med och den här boken ger många bra exempel och förklaringar. Att den är på engelska och jag skriver på svenska gör förstås att man måste tänka lite vad motsvarigheten på svenska skulle bli, vissa uttryck funkar helt enkelt inte på samma sätt, men principerna är ju ändå samma.

Jag ska försöka ha boken i åtanke under mitt fortsatta skrivande och hoppas att jag lyckats suga upp lite smarta idéer... Jag är glad att jag äntligen läste den.
Profile Image for Titus Watson.
58 reviews
November 25, 2022
This book is a good one for a writer at any stage, but might be especially useful for a writer heading into the editing stages of their writing. This book provides a great deep dive into the practical side of showing instead of telling. It provides examples of how to fix telling and gives explanations behind these examples. It also has an index in the back with a list of all the words that might indicate telling.

My one issue with the book is not even really a problem. I tend to find books that dive into the specifics of word choice and grammar a bit boring and slow. It’s hard for me to be energized to read them as I might be with a book discussing plot structure or character arcs. This book did dive into grammar and sentence structures at time, and I found it boring and slow. But, this isn’t a problem with the book. It was as engaging as it could be for tackling these things. It’s just something that I as a reader don’t love.
32 reviews
January 18, 2021
For now I have to say that most of the information was not new to me and didn't necessarily clear up any confusion one might have on the topic because it pretty much all depends on what you want to convey as the writer.
Compared to the other books I've read on writing (although I may have just been lucky there) it also seemed rather boring and dry.

However there was quite a lot of detailed information about words and phrases to look out for, which should be quite useful for editing.

I will definitely have another look at this once I'm starting my editing process and change my rating + review accordingly.
Profile Image for Dan.
Author 1 book6 followers
June 15, 2017
Good book with good exemples. Nothing incredible, but useful.
Profile Image for Omayra.
Author 7 books63 followers
November 16, 2019
I learned so much from this book. It is a great addition to the books that help an author sharpen her skills.
Profile Image for Zachary.
232 reviews
February 11, 2021
This was good at really hammering home what "show, don't tell" looks like in writing. It was a bit tedious and repetitive at times, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Profile Image for Sydney Young.
1,068 reviews84 followers
August 23, 2021
It’s an excellent little book on something that baffles many writers. Helped me figure out what I was doing. I’ll keep it around for reference.
Profile Image for Jörg.
135 reviews2 followers
May 17, 2021
This writing craft book is the best so far I’ve read and the easiest to understand. Everyone tells you when writing, you must show don’t tell. So what exactly does that mean? Well this book goes into great detail to answer this question. There are lots of examples of told text and how to change it to shown text. A must have read for all those learning to write like a professional. 5 stars from me.
2 reviews
July 30, 2018
I've listened to hundreds of hours of writing podcasts and read tons of helpful writing advice, but I think this one book is going to help my writing more than anything else. The author provides incredible insight that opened my eyes to the many ways writers "tell" without even knowing it. I can finally put my finger on why certain writing "sounds amateur" and other writing "sounds great."

I absolutely recommend this book. THANK YOU JANICE!
857 reviews231 followers
October 11, 2017

Solid book on craft that gives very specific examples on not only how to identify show vs tell in text, but also of how to fix it.

Found this to be an incredibly helpful resource.
Profile Image for Stef Smulders.
Author 17 books115 followers
November 1, 2021
Easily the best book on the subject that I have come across. Very practical and clear. Major lesson: your main character needs to have a voice. That allows you to internalize everything that you might be tempted to tell instead of show. Excellent book!
Profile Image for K.A..
Author 1 book2 followers
January 27, 2017
A down and dirty guide to showing vs telling. Includes clear examples of telling and how to fix it and balancing telling with showing. Hardy also lists and explains red flag words and phrases to find telling in your writing. One of the best explanations of "show, don't tell" I've seen. Quick and deceptively easy to read for such a slippery subject to new writers.
Profile Image for James Walter Lee.
Author 1 book35 followers
November 21, 2020
Very Helpful!

Janice Hardy takes us through an in-depth look at showing versus telling. Every writer who wishes to elevate their craft should definitely take a look at this book.
Profile Image for Sabetha.
Author 14 books113 followers
June 17, 2021
This is a must read book on writing, zero fluff, straight to the point, with examples.

The author walks you through telling and showing in about every way possible, plus circles back to when it okay. I loved the easy to understand format that she puts each chapter into, and can already tell that it will make it easy to reference in the future.

At the end of the book she includes a one page quick reference guide, which I was hoping for throughout reading. Reading this book made constructing engaging sentences make more sense.

Even if you think you are great at showing instead of telling, give it a read, it will be worth the few hours.
Profile Image for T.A. Uner.
Author 16 books537 followers
April 25, 2019
This book is timeless. And I would recommend any writer struggling with show, Don't tell to pick it up and read it a few times until its wisdom sinks in. I would advise beginning and intermediate level writers to pay close attention to what Ms. Hardy has written down, it will most likely add some spark to your prose.
Profile Image for Beth.
53 reviews3 followers
January 7, 2017
Found this informative and helpful, the only complaint was a minor one with the ebook's formatting, but it didn't bother me enough to mark off.
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