Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Craft: Show Me, Don't Tell Me

We've all heard it before:
Show, don't tell.

But what does that really mean? Why is it so important? And is it ever okay to 'tell'?

A lot of writers believe they are showing, when they're really just doing what some call 'fancy telling'.

"Telling states facts. Showing engages the reader by allowing the reader to use all their senses and make their own judgement."

Don't tell me your main character is angry (because I won't care), show me what he DOES and says, SHOW me he's angry, let me (the reader) decide if I relate, and feel his anger.  Readers want to feel engaged, to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what the characters are experiencing.
Okay, I've done enough telling, now let me show you.

Telling: When Gary broke up with me I was devastated. I'll never forget that pain.

Fancy Telling: I could live to be 100, and I'll never feel the agony and rejection I felt after Gary broke up with me. I was so devastated that I thought I would cry myself to death. I don't think I'll ever get over him. 

Showing: Even after Gary stopped doing the little things like calling me from work during the day "just to say hi", and letting me have the last slice of pizza, I still convinced myself it was the natural progression of a relationship settling into its second year. 
That soupy Monday morning, the air conditioner chugging away, I reached down to pick up the white envelope sticking out under my front door. I could smell him on the paper as I unfolded his letter. After reading the first sentence the words began to blur together, my heart thumped in my throat, gagging me. I barely made it to the bathroom, where I curled my body around the cold porcelain for the better part of a month.
It's been 6 months since he dumped me in that damn letter and I still get sick at the smell of pizza or men's cologne.

(Obviously I just wrote these quick for this post. Please feel free to write better examples in my comments :)

Often writers think that adding more adjectives to the details is showing, but they're merely doing some fancy telling. Telling on steroids, if you will. The reader still can't SEE the actions/behavior, they still can't judge and feel it for themselves.
Instead of just saying that a thing is "awful" or "funny" or "the most beautiful thing you can possibly imagine" and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should show actions, behaviors, senses with words (not lots of adjectives) that lead the reader to conclude for themselves that this thing is indeed terrifying or hilarious, etc.

Dialogue is a a tricky area. A lot of great showing can be done in dialogue, as can a lot of cheat-y telling. 

Don't: "You think you're so smart," she retorted dryly (or wryly...), "then you do it." 

Do: "You think you're so smart," she cocked a brow and tossed the directions at me, "then you do it." 

Tip: During revisions, do a search for the word "was" in your document (for directions how, go here). Often "was" is a clue that there's some telling going down.

When to tell, NOT show:

All showing and no telling makes a wordy, high-word-count, dull story.
Readers don't want to see/smell/hear every single detail of the 2-block taxi ride, or the sidewalk the MC walked upon, if it is of no real importance to the story.
It is okay to tell basic things. In fact we must, for pacing purposes.

What an author must strive for is balance between showing and telling.

But how do you know when to tell and when to show?

-If you want to convey emotion and/or allow you reader to feel, you must show them. 
-Go ahead and tell the things that are of minor importance, but needed to move the story forward (transitions, for example):

Jane climbed out of bed, used the bathroom and headed to the kitchen to start the coffee.

We don't need to know anything more about this part of the story, so for pacing purposes, this bit of telling is fine.

I hope this helps clarify the difference between showing and telling and when to do either.

By the way, I commit plenty of telling sins during my rough drafts, and that's okay. I'm just trying to get the bones of my story on the screen during that first pass. I spend a lot of time in revision turning the telling into showing (and sometimes the other way around.)



mi said...

really great post!

and great examples!

during my rough draft i just try to get the story out. i plan on fixing on my adverbs in dialogue tags during my edits, haha.

Falen said...

it took me a long time to get a grip on the show don't tell.
Because, curiously, everyone tells you to show don't tell, but no one shows you how to do it

Crystal Cook said...

I have really been trying to work on this lately. I love this! thank you :)

I like the tip about 'was' I use that word a lot, but never realized that it often is used when telling.

T.D. Newton said...

Good post, very informative.

Christine Danek said...

Great post! I'm working on this right now in my revisions.

Lydia Kang said...

Great post. It kind of made me laugh, because I got good at "fancy telling" for a while and had no idea I was still telling!

Candyland said...

This is fantastic! I love your examples!

Crimey said...

I adore this post. Very comprehensive show vs. tell examples. Telling has its place in specific situations like summarizing/moving a scene forward.

Eric W. Trant said...

You raised my hackles on that Fancy Telling example. I thought that was your showing example until I re-read it and caught what you were doing.

I'm dense like that.

My rule is ACTION. Even my introspections have action.

Turn your scenes into action -- especially the introspections -- and you'll avoid a lot of the telling sins.

- Eric

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Well said! This is an excellent post! And telling on steroids? LOL. :)

Palindrome said...

I tell on steroids in my first draft because I just want to get it down.

But yes, I've read everywhere "show don't tell" and no one shows you what that means. I think you did a bang up job! :)

Also in helping to keep down your word count. If the sentence has nothing to do with the progression of the story, character, plot...cut it!

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Very comprehensive post. It took me five drafts of my first novel to figure this out. You know, though, I'm reading a novel right now which is practically just 'fancy telling', and I have to say, it's BRILLIANT.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post. I think showing and telling both have their place - just like you said - but there is a difference between show and 'fancy telling.'

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post, and the examples you have given are great ones that definitely illustrate the point. :)

Piedmont Writer said...

Can I adore you any more than I already do?

"telling on steroids" is the funniest thing I've ever heard.

You are absolutely brilliant Dearest and this is a timely post for me. Thank you.

JEM said...

Okay, get your tomatoes ready: I like adverb dialogue tags. I'm not even talking about in my own writing: I like them in books. Not all the time, obviously, but I see it used a lot in good writing so I know it works (when used correctly). I know there's a big push to cut out adverbs, but for me, there's a reason why they exist.

Gooooooooood point on the fancy telling, I'm 99% sure I do that. A lot.

Jennie Bailey said...

My high school english teacher taught me the lesson of Show, Don't Tell. He drilled it into us. We didn't write essays. We wrote poems and short stories. He critiqued them and gave them back for editing. Only when we had shown and not told did we get his seal of approval and the assignment was marked complete. I loved that man! I was blessed to have him. This is such an excellent blog post with great examples. Thank you for the reminder!

Summer said...

Great examples, Lola. It is a pretty tricky balance to know when to tell, how to mix showing and telling, and keeping down the word count and up the pace. And writing drunk doesn't help.

What! I didn't say that! :-P

Old Kitty said...

Great samples of showing and telling and getting the balance right! My first drafts are always littered with telling (they really stand out awkwardly like lumps on white sauce!!!) so I do alot of beating out and whisking. I mean lots of editing and re-writes! LOL!

Take care

mo.stoneskin said...


I stamped on a bug.

Fancy Telling

I was feeling angry, and then I saw a bug, it was very naughty of me.


As I lounged about in my boxers, chucking stones idly across the patio and slurping my coffee in irritating fashion, my gaze happened upon a harmless little bug.

It strolled in front of me, taking immense pleasure from the warm flags and singing gently to itself, it was Living on a Prayer I think.

In that unfortunate moment I remembered this month's monstrous gas bill and, well, the rage hit in and somebody had to suffer.

Jen said...

Lola my love your brilliance amazes me.

What great examples... I wouldn't have guessed it!

I'm currently working on showing vs. telling, I think a ton of writers do this, and I'm in the group. Maybe one of these days I won't have to revise that portion near as much!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

You know how to give super examples. I'm impressed, and I love the term "fancy" telling. :D I get better and better as a I revise and notice those "telling" moments which definitely fill the rough draft.

Theresa Milstein said...

Lola, excellent post! Your examples are awesome.

It took me FOREVER (I'm embarrassed to admit) to get this show, not tell. While I'm not perfect at it, my manuscript are much better from what I've learned.

Wendy Ramer said...

This is one of the most helpful lessons I've seen on show don't tell. Thank you!

Jaydee Morgan said...

I love the example showing the difference between showing and fancy telling. Good job! This really was a very informative post.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great examples!

Jeff King said...

Great info... thx

Christina Lee said...

GREAT examples. You learn and learn, with every pass you learn. ;-)

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

First thanks for following, high five! Super newbie in the blogging world, I know where have I been...??
Great post, I just recently learned how to do this. It was a struggle for a while cause I was like but I said it, doesn't that show it. NOPE. I love that you give examples on how to do this. Very helpful :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post. I love the term 'fancy telling.' :D

DL Hammons said...

Guilty as charged! One of my biggest writing faults. Some great illustrations here, and hopefully I can learn from them.

Susan Fields said...

Great post - I love your examples. So do you never use adverbs in your dialogue tags? I find myself having people raise their eyebrows so much I had to use the "find" feature on my last ms and take a bunch out. Sometimes I think those little actions (when overdone) can get as annoying as the adverbs.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm getting better at this, but it's something I really have to watch for :)

Vicki Rocho said...

I'd tape this to my monitor as a reminder, but then I wouldn't be able to see my story.

I love it when there's good/bad examples!

Lola Sharp said...

Susan-- I never use adverbs in my dialogue tags.

BUT, I also don't always use tags (when I do, it is simply 'said', 'asked') and I definitely do NOT always use the 'little actions'. You are correct, that would get annoying fast. It's all about balance and moderation, and using the best tool for the job.

I showed the action in this case to show how one could get across speaking 'wryly' or 'dryly'. *shudder* (It is also handy to break up a big chunk of dialogue.)

I'm not saying one should never use an adverb. But I am saying as with most things, less is more.

I am guilty of plenty of overuse bad habits ('that', for example), and have to slog my way through Revision Hell for months, so please don't think I'm judging.

T. Anne said...

One day I'm going to write a long list of novels I've read that 'tell' the whole darn thing. Miraculously they got published That and prologues. ISn't it amazing only newbie authors aren't allowed to use those? I feel a blog post coming on... thanks for the inspiration! Nice to meet you too!

Bossy Betty said...

Great advice and examples. Thanks!

Elena said...

I'm going to keep this post in mind when I begin revision #3. Thanks!

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

oh why did you have to go here...?? *hangs head in shame*

I am terrible about this - you will see. It is awful. I don't mean to and sometimes I show it better in my head then when I type for some unknown reason I translate it into a telling paragraph. Yuck.

You'll see alright and I am afraid my Wolfpack leader will be pulling her hair out and howling at the moon! ;o)

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post with wonderful examples! I often do both in my drafts and then cut the telling bit. I'm always asking myself; do I need this sentence?

Thanks for stopping by my blog to meet me. :) You have a nice blog...

Lola Sharp said...

Courtney, we all do it. It isn't just you. (and sometimes telling is good.)

Clara said...

Very useful post, I LOVED the "was" rule!

To edit is like removing your appendix: You dont want it because it makes you less whole, so its painful and difficult. But once you do it, well, you realize you really didnt need it after all lol

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Personally, adverbs in dialouge tags don't bug me very much. 'retorted dryly' would bug me, but 'said patiently,' doesn't. And, of course, there are better ways to do it, but it's not always awful.

Bridge Marie said...

I really like the distinction between fancy telling and showing. Great advice!

Tara said...

My entire first drafts are usually a lot of just telling myself what needs to go there.

Anonymous said...

Someone, somewhere, defined "telling" as narration and "showing" as dramatization. Ever since I made this distinction in my mind, it has helped me figure out where in my story there needs to be narration and what moments to dramatize.

Here's my very basic example of showing vs. telling

Telling: Mark was in a good mood. He washed the dishes. A plate fell to the floor.

Showing: Mark whistled to himself while he scrubbed away at each dish. He even laughed at himself when he dropped a plate on the floor.

i.e. the second sentence reveals that Mark is in a good mood by "showing" that he is whistling and laughing. But, it's not spelled out.

Showing involves using your reader's assumptions and giving them enough credit to figure out what you're trying to convey.

Thanks for reminding me of this topic, Lola. xx

Lola Sharp said...

Excellent examples, Sarah!! Thanks for sharing you wise words. :)

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

Great post. As I was reading, I was nodding my head in agreements but also thinking, BUT...sometimes telling is the appropriate tactic. Then you got there!

Portia said...

Well said! And the examples are great. I think we have to allow ourselves to make the worst mistakes in our rough drafts and commit to reaching higher levels as we edit.

Watery Tart said...

This was GREAT, and probably the first permission I've ever been granted to include a little telling for the connecting pieces... Great way to make this all clear!

Glen Binger said...

GREAT article!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I know I have some tellingin my books. It's hard to X out.

Kittie Howard said...

Quickly saw your lovely comment this a.m. (for which I humbly thank you!) and was delighted you stopped by!! But had to rush for a chick lunch at the mall. Nordstrom's had a pair of red shoes just like in your profile, I kid you not. No, I didn't get them, but I'm a sucker for red shoes and red purses (so have a fair allotment, I guess:) Anyway, I think your blog is fabulous, a gold mine that sparkles. Thanks for the link to minimize 'was'...I try really hard to stay out of 'to be' so appreciate a helping link. And really enjoyed your show/tell...I don't think a writer should dictate to the reader (assumes talking down)...ohhhh but I'm looking forward to your blog!! Kittie

Lola Sharp said...

Kittie--Welcome aboard the crazy train! :)

I have a thing for heels/cute shoes of all colors...but my red patent leather lovelies (from my profile picture) are my favorite. (they hurt bad after an hour around the baby toe, sadly.) The cream pair on the right (they're just from Aldo) are comfy and have a vintage vibe I enjoy, and since they're neutral, I wear them the often.
I'm not ashamed to admit to owning 32 pair of black heels!

Okay, I'll shut my trap now. Pretty, pretty shoes are like pretty books, or perfect songs... I can't stop blabbering about them.


Samantha Bennett said...

Thank you for spelling out what this rule actually means! You showed us! Gracias!

Talli Roland said...

These are great examples, Lola - thanks! It's something that's so hard to remember and be objective about in our own writing.

Shelley Sly said...

Yes! I love this post. Not to say I'm the absolute best at showing versus telling, but I'm getting better. And adverbs in dialogue make me want to pull my hair out too!

Jon Paul said...

Lola--Loved this one so much, I put up a companion post.

And I've heard nothing but bad things about that Gary guy. Recommend you continue to steer clear.


Lola Sharp said...

JP, dude, it took me a while to figure out who Gary was and why I needed to stay away from him! Duh. I'm slow.
Thankfully, he was imaginary. I've never dated anyone named Gary (now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I've ever known anyone named Gary), I've never been dumped--though I have slept around a toilet a time or two (not because of heartbreak), and almost nothing smells better than pizza!

Thanks for the link love/shout out, JP. I'm honored and flattered. I enjoyed your post on the topic very much.

Donna Hole said...

Great analogies; really specific. I'm always on the lookout for posts in this subject.

I have the most problems with my short stories, where word count is so essential. I rush the story, and end up with too much telling, not enough showing.

Thanks for the tips and examples. They are a much needed help. My internal editor is clacking away at synapses with fresh ideas as I type this.



These are all wonderful examples. I especially dislike it when authors repeat information by both showing and telling. Thanks for the post.

Lola Sharp said...

Samuel--ME TOO!!

Lola Sharp said...

Samuel--ME TOO!!

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

You break down showing verses telling so well here. Bravo! The more I write, the more I turn instinctively to showing. It is definitely a skill to have under your belt, an awareness of storytelling that comes with practice, both in writing and in reading. And, I couldn't agree with you more about adverbs in dialog tags. Your example was perfect!

Tish Jett said...

Let's keep it simple: Thank you for the reminders, the lesson and the examples.

You are brilliant. Now I understand why I'm incapable of writing fiction. Next step might be to try to apply your advice to whatever I'm struggling to write decently, she thought with doubt clearly seared onto her visage.

How about that for a nifty example of bad writing? If you're ever in need of a rich collection, let me know.

Please feel free to perk this up, edit, rewrite -- whatever you feel might help.


TechnoBabe said...

Great job with explanations and examples. I can learn so much just from reading your posts. Thanks.

Liza said...

Excellent post! Came over at JP's (Where Sky Meets Ground) suggestion today, and I'm glad I did.

Kazzy said...

I read a book last week that was so "telling" I never even had to think. Sheesh!

Lola Sharp said...

Donna--I don't write a lot of short stories, but I can see where it would be a challenge. I'm glad this connected with your inner editor. :)

Everyone--Thank you for coming here and taking the time to read and comment. I'm honored and grateful.

I love my fellow writers. :)

Dawn said...

I LOVE this post. Sometimes the line between when to show and when to tell is a little blurry. Thanks for reminding me that it's ok to tell once in a while.

Anonymous said...

You posted great examples. I'm glad you also wrote about "fancy telling." I haven't seen that description before, and writers need to know that it's not showing.

salarsenッ said...

You highlight your points wonderfully. And your example is great. I heard exactly what you meant. I'll be pondering this all day.

Slamdunk said...

Fantastic post. Your examples hit home--unfortunately, that is.

G.~ said...

Thank you for actually "showing" us how. I get it alot faster when people show me how to do something as opposed to telling me how to do something. This was one of the first rules I learned when I started my novel. Luckily I'm quite descriptive by nature.

This is a great post Lola.

Keri said...

Yeah, even when I think I'm "showing" and when I tell other people to "show" I often fail at it myself.

Thanks for this post. It's really great to see someone else's insight and examples and get a different perspective on it.♥

Lee said...

Nice post Lola and clearly illustrated. Searching for "be" verbs is one of my favorite tricks. By the way, I see you are a NanoWrimo winner. Are you participating this year? I'm looking for some NanoWRimo people to team up with. Anticipating I'll need a push now and then in November.

Lola Sharp said...

Lee, yes, I will be participating in Nano this year. I'll be putting up a post sometime in mid-summer to make a list of all those who want to do it with me. Be on the lookout sometime in August. :)

Nishant said...

I have really been trying to work on this lately. I love this! thank you :)
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My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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