Show Vs. Tell

07 Oct

I know, you’ve heard it a zillion times in every writing workshop you’ve ever attended. Show, don’t tell. So you know this already, why is this stupid blogger woman harping on it again?

Because, ladies and gentlemen, at my “day job” (which I put in quotation marks because I work at it more than just during the day), I edit manuscripts for authors, and most of you still don’t GET IT.

Yes, intellectually, you all know you’re supposed to show and not tell, but few of you actually make it work. So I’m going to try, with some very beginning examples, to get that light bulb to go on for you. Sometimes hearing things in a million different ways doesn’t work, but number one million and one hits it out of the ballpark. (Enjoying my mixed metaphors? Good.)

Let’s start with a basic example. Adverbs. Anytime you use an adverb, you are probably telling and not showing. Don’t know how to identify an adverb? Don’t feel stupid, many people don’t. For starters, almost all word that end in “ly” are adverbs. They describe how an action is being done. For example, “He ran quickly.” “Quickly is our adverb. It tells how the running was being done.

Most beginners fail to understand that using a word like “quickly” is telling. After all, they reason, they are showing how the running is being done by using the handy adverb. No, no, no. Dear writer, that is not showing, that is telling. Kill all adverbs and make your writing work harder.

Instead of my sample sentence above, you could rewrite it to say:

“He sprinted up the hill.”

This paints a more vivid picture. Sprinting indicates the quickly, but also adds another dimension. Sprinting is more than quick. It’s fast. And going up a hill while sprinting–well our hero is either a world class athlete or about to have a heart attack.

Or you could write the sentence:

“He dashed over the wreckage of the car before it could explode.”

Now, I admit, “dashed” doesn’t necessarily imply running, but it does imply quickly. Maybe another verb would paint a better picture. How about “He forced his way over the wreckage. . .” Or “He climbed over the wreckage.”

See how the verbs make the difference? They paint a unique picture each time.

Another common error is to add a description to a dialogue tag. For example:

“I wish I could eat dinner now,” said the girl hungrily.

This goes back to our adverb problem. How does some say something “hungrily?” Does she whine? Does she cry? Does she lie down on the floor and have a tantrum? We could show this more effectively if we flesh out the scene:

The girl tugged at her mom’s sleeve. “I want to eat. Now.” She sat on the floor of the grocery store and crossed her arms. “I’m hungry.” Then she started wailing.

In fact, fleshing out the scene is usually the best way to show instead of tell. Some techniques for this include adding details specific to only that scene. If, for example, I added that the girl tugged on her mom’s coat sleeve, we would know it was probably winter, or at least cold enough for a coat. Rather than summer. This shows the season and the writer doesn’t have to tell it. Or if the girl spoke with a lisp, that would show us something. Or if instead of being in a grocery store they were in a china store, that would show something else. (Not to mention make me nervous she would break things.)

Same with the scene of the guy running that I used as an example above. Details like where he is make a difference. If he’s sprinting up a hill, is he in a race? Or is there a fire? Is he a police officer chasing a suspect? Or someone running after his lose dog? Those details matter.

Another way to flesh out the scene is to show how characters react to what another character is saying.

Let’s say this is our starting exchange:

“You can’t go out tonight,” said Mom.

“But I already promised,” said Claire.

Now, if we want to show this scene more effectively, we could add Claire’s reaction, and then Mom’s:

“You can’t go out tonight,” said Mom.

Claire grabbed the car keys from the hook by the door. She didn’t even bother to put on her coat. “But I already promised,”

Mom grabbed her by the arm.

This response shows us that Claire is not listening, nor does she have any intention of obeying. Let’s try a different way:

“You can’t go out tonight,” said Mom. She coughed into her sleeve as her body sagged into the couch.

Claire felt her mom’s forehead. It was burning up. “But I already promised,” said Claire. “I’ll have to call and cancel.”

Different seen, virtually same dialogue.

This is all part of that revision process I’ve been focusing on lately, and is usually one of the first things to look for after your first draft. Rewrite anything with an adverb, anything where you’re telling us how the dialogue is said, or flesh out any scenes with specific details.


Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Idaho, Revising, writing craft


4 responses to “Show Vs. Tell

  1. Betsy Love Lds Author

    October 7, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    Great post. I’m one of those who works to show, but ends up telling. A key to eliminate telling scenes is to also find all the “to be” forms in your ms and see you can rewrite them without those pesky verbs. Sometimes though, you can’t help it. But eliminating those, as well as adverbs gives the scene the zing and sparkle it needs. Thanks for the examples!

  2. Carley Ash

    October 7, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Great blog Neysa. Love it. Thank you.

  3. Mary Vine

    October 11, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    Excellent blog, Neysa. I know I need reminders of just how it’s done, over and over. Thanks!!

  4. Steph

    October 25, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Great blog. I’m just starting revisions. I’m going to print this to remind me–Show, not tell.


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