Sunday, September 4, 2011

Don't Tell Me

Show versus Tell is one of the dreaded ones in a writer’s dictionary. Sometimes your editor will mark up your entire manuscript in red text that looks something like this

<------- Telling here. Need to show what is happening. 

This is pretty much where you bang your head off a wall or keyboard. Many times you don’t even realize you’re telling instead of showing until someone points it out. It’s that hard to see when you’re writing. 

So what’s the problem with telling instead of showing? Well, typically, telling a story can be very dry to a reader and at times lacks creativity in the writing. It doesn’t allow the reader to FEEL want the protagonist is feeling. And you want the reader to be in the protags shoes. Not three blocks down from what’s happen. 

Here are some examples of Show vs. Tell.

  • Emotion is SO important. You want to reader to feel it. Not see it on paper.
Tell: I was angry as I got into my car.
Show: Blood boiling, I whipped open the car door and slammed it shut behind me.
Tell: The ghost scared me.
Show: Ice slithered through my veins, pooling in my stomach. My breath hitched as the shadows pulled together, forming the upper half of a man wearing an old Confederate uniform, but there were no legs. He was only half there, floating in air. 

  • A common one in manuscripts is this one. Sometimes all you think you have to do is say someone is good looking and everyone believes you. Ah, no.
Tell: He was really hot.
Deep brown hair the color of bark fell over his forehead in wild waves. His face was arresting and intriguing, with high cheekbones and a determined mouth. Not conventionally handsome, but universally alluring.
(The showing is from CURSED) 

Need more examples? Comment in the comment section and I’ll make up some more

Here’s where I’m going to throw you two curve balls. Because that’s how I roll. 

  • First curve ball to the face:
Sometimes telling is okay, when you need to get to the good stuff. You’ll see this happening with passages of time. 

Example: A week crawled by before I saw him again.  

You can’t write an ENTIRE novel in showing. It would be the longest piece of over-written work you’d ever read. Sometimes it’s okay. And the more you write, the easier it is for you to figure out when a quickie and to the point sentence is needed.

  • Second curve ball to the gut:
I recently read a book that was ENTIRELY in telling mode. It showed absolutely nothing. Everything, and I do mean everything, was told to the reader. Oddly, it worked for the book. Maybe because it was in 3rd person, but I couldn’t help but put on my writer hat every time I was told something. It was frustrating for me, because I’m the type of reader/writer who wants to be showed something, but like I said, it kind of worked for the book. 
Also, I believe this book garnered a 6-7 figure advance at auction. Why am I telling you this? That rules in writing are ALWAYS meant to be broken. Now I don’t suggest that you run out there and write an entire novel in “telling” mode, because seriously, it is very rare to pull it off, but some people have. 


  1. Thanks for the advice! I've been working on that habit of mine for years now, and it's always nice to have examples like the ones you gave. :)


  2. Awesome explanations and advice. Show VS Tell can me so hard sometimes!