Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How To Show Instead of Tell

Quote of the Day:
Don't say the old lady screamed -- bring her on and let her scream.
~Mark Twain

Okay, this is something I posted a while back, but my poor crit buddies have been hammering me on this lately, and rightly so! My current manuscript is FULL of scenes with way too much telling. Which frankly I find both ironic and hilarious considering the fact that the entire premise of my non-fiction book is the fact that people learn better if you show them how to do something rather than just telling them. Go figure :D

In any case, when it comes to my fiction at least, I need to start SHOWING. So I thought it would be a good time to remind myself of exactly how to do that :D

One of the “rules” I hear all the time is to show not tell. The first time I heard that I thought, “What does that mean, anyways?

Well, TELLING means you are just, umm, telling the reader what is going on. SHOWING means you show them :D Seems easy, huh? Not always. It is ridiculously easy to fall into the habit of telling.

As this is something I still to do….A LOT …it is the problem area I have been working on the most lately. Which again, is why I searched through my files to find this post – I knew I had spent some time on this in the not too distant past and it is obviously time for a refresher course for me!!

When you are writing, you want to draw the reader in as much as possible. Action and dialogue are two elements that really help to keep the story moving, that draw the reader in, make the story exciting, and all that other fun stuff.

So, if you have a scene where your main character is angry, just telling the reader, “Eric was mad,” is okay…but probably won’t be nearly as good as, “Eric’s eyes flashed and the big vein in his forehead throbbed like it was about to burst from his skin.” Don’t tell the reader he’s mad…show him.

In my first book, Treasured Lies, my main character, Min, was irritated that she had fallen in a puddle and made a fool of herself. I had her storming up the stairs to her room with the description, “Min was freezing in her wet clothes and annoyed that she had yet again made a fool of herself.” (Or something to that affect…it’s been a while) :D

One of my fabulous critique buddies pointed out that this was “telling.” She said that I should show my readers that Min was irritated, instead of just telling them. So, the passage was changed to: “Shivers ran through her chilled body as she climbed the stairs. She huffed and kicked at the muddy skirts that tangled around her legs, irritated that she had managed to disgrace herself once again.”

I do tell you WHY she was irritated, but I also show that she is freezing, and show her annoyance with her actions (huffing and kicking skirts). Yes, it takes longer, uses more words, but the result is much more effective.

Now, are there occasions when you should tell rather than show? Definitely. Physical descriptions are pretty difficult to “show.” If someone has blue eyes, it is perfectly acceptable to just say they have blue eyes. And instances like in the above sentence, when you need to explain why someone is acting as they are.

Show the emotion, tell the reason. Show me that your main character is sad by describing her face, her tears, her sobs. Don’t tell me she’s crying…show me: “Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook.” (as this is just an example, I won’t stress over the fact that I used the word ‘her’ six times in two sentences – but you get the point of the showing over telling). :D

Then you can tell me why she is crying. “Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook. She just couldn’t believe her mother had forgotten her birthday again.”

As you can see, the sentences “Eric was mad,” “Min was freezing and annoyed,” “Laura cried,” tell us what is going on, but there is no action, they aren’t exciting, they don’t connect you to what is going on.

The new sentences:

“Eric’s eyes flashed and the big vein in his forehead throbbed like it was about to burst from his skin.”

“Shivers ran through her chilled body as she climbed the stairs. She huffed and kicked at the muddy skirts that tangled around her legs, irritated that she had managed to disgrace herself once again.”


“Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook.”

These make me care, they are exciting to read, there is something going on. I don’t necessarily care if someone cries…I do care if they are curled around themselves with uncontrollably shaking shoulders.

Dialogue is another great way to change a telling passage into a showing extravaganza.

For example:

(telling) David and Tony argued back and forth about who was right. = blah

(showing) “You did too!” David shouted, his face growing redder by the minute.
“Oh whatever. I did not and I have witnesses,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, well I have witnesses too.”
“You’re the liar! Just admit you’re wrong and get it over with.”
“No way.”
“Yes way!”

= oooo, action, dialogue, something’s going on!! :D

So, bottom line – if it is possible to show something rather than tell it, do so :) But don’t stress over the occasions when telling is necessary, because they will come up. For the most part though, try adding some action or dialogue to really help show the reader what is going on instead of just telling them.

How does everyone else do with this? Is this something you struggle with? What are some things you do to keep from telling too much of your story rather than showing it?


Cole Gibsen said...

Great advice and worth the reminder!

Jen said...

Good morning, Michelle!

Excellent refresher post. I had the most wonderful writing mentor who stressed this truth over and over and over again! "SHOW me don't tell me!" She would admonish! I try to do just that with all my writing. I admit, it gets tedious sometimes, but I've always been a rather wordy gal :)

My biggest connundrum is the millions of "he said, she said" that pepper my novels. I hear conflicting arguments that you should find other adverbs or just show an action as they speak. Then I read that you should stick with "he said, she said". Any ideas?


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Sometimes we need to use telling to fast-forward but most of the time we need to keep the reader deeply embedded in the story. One thing I found helps me is to ask myself what the character is feeling and how he/she is reacting at the moment. The answer to that give me the show.

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks Cole - I'll have to print out a big SHOW IT DON'T TELL IT sign or something to go over my computer LOL

JSC - I used to get very elaborate with my dialogue tags, using things like "she admonished, he implored, she exclaimed." But now, I usually try to get rid of all of them whenever possible. If they are necessary, I stick with he said, she asked, he whispered....just the basics, because they are supposed to be more "invisible" to the reader. I read an article on that somewhere...I'll have to see if I can find it again :)

Tricia - good tip! I'll try and keep my character's feelings and responses in mind as I edit. *sigh* my poor manuscript...I think it is going to take longer to edit than it did to write :D

Jennifer said...

Awesome advice.

I don't really have a problem with telling instead of showing, but sometimes I don't give enough details.

Great post! :)

Roni Loren said...

I have to fight with myself not to "tell". I have to constantly be vigilant about it. I also used to suffer from dialogue tag (and adverb) abuse. I'm in recovery now, though. :)

Unknown said...

Big problem of mine, that damned exposition writer in me.
Thanks for the tips!

Jen said...


Becky Mushko said...

Thanks for the good advice (with examples to show what you mean!). Very helpful!

Rebecca Knight said...

Great post! This is on my Naughty List, too, when I'm revising my own manuscript.

However, I think sometimes telling gets a bad rep. It's necessary, but in small amounts, like a seasoning instead of the main dish.

Donald Maass says in "Writing the Breakout Novel" that there is also a time to "tell." I've seen the opposite mistake made where folks think they have to show every single thing. When that happens, you can get purple prose about wind gengly caressing bending treebranches with its icy tendrils, when all you really needed to say was "they rode on through the forest." For transitions or brief travel, telling is the way to go ;).

Thanks for the great post and examples! 99.99% of the time, we need to show it!

Stephanie Thornton said...

This is a great reminder and one I need to keep in mind as I edit my WIP. I've been discussing this with some friends, especially in regard to dialogue.

For example, "I hate you!" Stephanie screamed angrily.

Duh. She's obviously angry. That's telling.

"I hate you!" Stephanie slammed the door in Isabella's face.

That gets rid of the awkward adverb and the dialogue tag. And I have to admit, this is what I'm spending most of my time cleaning up right now on my manuscript.

Fun stuff!

Liza said...

“Great reminder,” she said, with a sigh. Focusing her bloodshot eyes on her 47th draft, she clicked the mouse and began to highlight the ineffective paragraphs in yellow.

B.J. Anderson said...

Wonderful advice! And yes, I'm always going back through my manuscript to change scenes of telling to showing.

BJW said...

You had me at the Mark Twain quote.

Great post. Well put. Good comments. Loved Suzanne's comment too.

Hey Tricia, Show me the money... Sorry.

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

I'd always heard this advice, but I never understood it until a friend "showed" me an example.

Funny, huh?

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Man I am struggling with this very topic right now and your words are very helpful indeed!! I am glad I stopped by!