Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

“Don’t talk of stars, burning above! If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night.
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!”
Show Me from My Fair Lady

Think of your book as a court case. Would you, as the jury, believe the prosecutor if he screamed, “The defendant is guilty!!! …And I rest my case.”

No. You want proof so you believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

Apply the same idea to your writing. What proof do you have to convince your reader that your character is bored, that her hero is unhappy, that his antagonist is delighted? Let’s look at an example.

Belinda was bored. She had a lot to do and her friends, while hilarious, had no idea what sort of deadlines she faced. Three C++ programs and an analysis of Moby Dick to write? She had to figure out how to make her excuses and get out of there, quick.

What’s the problem? I’m telling you she’s bored and has a lot to do, but I don’t tell you how she’s reacting to these facts. Let’s try again.

Belinda twisted her ring around her finger. A paper and three programming assignments. She crossed her legs. Maybe she could write the Moby Dick analysis first? She uncrossed her legs. No, Moby Dick would take much longer, better do the programs first. Belinda glanced once at her cell phone, pressing the side button to illuminate the little screen and see the time. Class in twenty minutes. She stood to stretch, and no one said anything, knowing her history with back pain. She pushed her chair back to its desk and straightened the other empty chairs around her, inching for the door.

What is different? I rely on shorter sentences to portray an anxious mood. There are descriptive verbs: twisting, crossing, uncrossing, glancing, stretching, pushing, inching. Can you see someone doing this? Too polite to say they want to leave, but showing you they want to, anyway?

The Point: Use small details to reveal the bigger picture without flat out explaining the bigger picture.

Movies and songs do this because they don’t have the luxury of 80,000 words to explain everything. Love songs describe missed phone calls, the smell of an old shirt, the empty half of a bed. Small details showing us the singer is alone and heartbroken, which is more powerful than the singer repeating, “Oh, I’m heartbroken, can’t you see I’m heartbroken?”

Treat each scene in your book as if it were a scene in a movie. What details would the camera show the audience?

Showing Through Body Language

Watch your co-workers, family, friends and enemies, the strangers on the street. Can you tell what is going on without hearing the conversation? Are they standing upright? Are their shoulders hunched? Are they looking away as they speak? Are they sweating?

Showing Through the Environment

Sure, maybe it was a “dark and stormy night,” but we’ve all heard that before. What about your five senses help you realize that it is storming, and that you wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it? Are the gnats gathering into furious swarms? Is the heat pressing against your skin, making you feel like you can’t breathe? Are the trees swaying? Can you smell the heavy dampness?

Showing Through Architecture

What about the buildings that your characters live in? Are they worn down, a sad testiment to what once was? By the way, don’t ever say “the house was worn down, a sad testiment to what once was.” That’s telling.

Show me the house is worn down by describing spider webs in the windows, so thick they prevent the full sunlight from shining into the room. Show me how the roof is badly patched with pieces of rotting bark collected from the nearby forest. Details, details, details.

Comment on the Show Don’t Tell mantra to enter in the Worderella free critique contest. Do you think it works? Are you tired of hearing it? If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, does it confuse you?

Books to Buy: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Links to reference: Showing Through Dialogue, How to Avoid Too Much Backstory

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

23 thoughts on “Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

  1. *shakes head* That summarizing thing–I do it all the time. It’s one of my writing tics. I need to post something on my computer–Thou Shalt Not Summarize Events in the WIP.

    🙂

    Like

  2. *shakes head* That summarizing thing–I do it all the time. It’s one of my writing tics. I need to post something on my computer–Thou Shalt Not Summarize Events in the WIP.

    🙂

    Like

  3. I think there is a time for telling instead of showing.You can't show everything. Showing everything results in a 1,000 page manuscript. But I do know that I still tell entirely too much and as a result it's hard for the reader to feel the emotional landscape I'm trying to create.

    This is one of the best articles I've seen explaining the show, don't tell adage though. I mean I "know" what show, don't tell, means, but then I don't? You know? Or I didn't. Now I do. Basically what I'm trying to get out, but won't come out is…these are good examples that paint very clearly the differences for me so I can better apply them. Thanks!

    Like

  4. I think there is a time for telling instead of showing.You can’t show everything. Showing everything results in a 1,000 page manuscript. But I do know that I still tell entirely too much and as a result it’s hard for the reader to feel the emotional landscape I’m trying to create.

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen explaining the show, don’t tell adage though. I mean I “know” what show, don’t tell, means, but then I don’t? You know? Or I didn’t. Now I do. Basically what I’m trying to get out, but won’t come out is…these are good examples that paint very clearly the differences for me so I can better apply them. Thanks!

    Like

  5. The whole show-don't-tell conundrum really bedevils the best of us, so it's great to have it broken down in such relate-able terms. Thank you!

    Like

  6. The whole show-don’t-tell conundrum really bedevils the best of us, so it’s great to have it broken down in such relate-able terms. Thank you!

    Like

  7. Zoe – I completely agree. That’s what I’ll be talking about in tomorrow’s post. And thank you! I learn by example so I thought maybe showing an example would help.

    Margay – You’re very welcome.

    Sierra – Glad to help!

    Like

  8. Natalie – I wish my magic wand could help you, but alas, it's made of plastic and sequins. Showing is active, this much I know. We are reading the actions of the character as they do them, whereas in narrative/exposition we are reading what has already happened, or, in some cases, what might happen. There are usually exceptions to this rule, just like any other, but that's how I simplify it when I'm writing/editing.

    Like

  9. Shannon – I turn to musicals when in doubt, and they hardly ever lead me astray. 😉 And it's really hard sometimes to determine which is the best way to write a scene as telling/showing. There have been times where I wrote one scene both ways, left it alone for a day, and then came back to it to see which affected me most. More work than writing it once, but it helped me.

    Marti – I feel you. I love the tiny, unique details in my favorite authors but I sometimes still struggle putting the details in my own writing. So I re-read my favorite authors, not for comprehension, but to learn the craft. That helps a lot.

    Like

  10. How do you know you've got it right and not full of exposition? Like everyone else this is what I struggle with at the moment, showing without annoying the reader. Great blog.

    Like

  11. I can never read enough on this topic personally. Each person shows it in a different way and your examples really stuck with me. I love the My Fair Lady verse – how perfect! I might have to stick that on my wall.

    One aspect i’m still struggling with is deciding what parts to show and what parts to tell. Sometimes it is obvious but there are situations where I have to think about the tempo of the section or what aspect in the section is most important and needs to be the accent. Part of the learning process I guess. I look forward to tomorrow’s topic!

    Like

  12. I can never read enough on this topic personally. Each person shows it in a different way and your examples really stuck with me. I love the My Fair Lady verse – how perfect! I might have to stick that on my wall.

    One aspect i’m still struggling with is deciding what parts to show and what parts to tell. Sometimes it is obvious but there are situations where I have to think about the tempo of the section or what aspect in the section is most important and needs to be the accent. Part of the learning process I guess. I look forward to tomorrow’s topic!

    Like

  13. Sometimes I’m sooo sure I’m showing, not telling. Then my BFF, also a writer, points out the error of my ways. I hate it when someone else rewrites a couple of sentences for me, but if she didn’t, I’d never recognize what I’d done. I hate it worse that I still summarize when I should be detailing. It’s the tiniest, most unique details that catch me when I read my favorite authors!

    Like

  14. Sometimes I’m sooo sure I’m showing, not telling. Then my BFF, also a writer, points out the error of my ways. I hate it when someone else rewrites a couple of sentences for me, but if she didn’t, I’d never recognize what I’d done. I hate it worse that I still summarize when I should be detailing. It’s the tiniest, most unique details that catch me when I read my favorite authors!

    Like

  15. Shannon – I turn to musicals when in doubt, and they hardly ever lead me astray. 😉 And it’s really hard sometimes to determine which is the best way to write a scene as telling/showing. There have been times where I wrote one scene both ways, left it alone for a day, and then came back to it to see which affected me most. More work than writing it once, but it helped me.

    Marti – I feel you. I love the tiny, unique details in my favorite authors but I sometimes still struggle putting the details in my own writing. So I re-read my favorite authors, not for comprehension, but to learn the craft. That helps a lot.

    Like

  16. How do you know you’ve got it right and not full of exposition? Like everyone else this is what I struggle with at the moment, showing without annoying the reader. Great blog.

    Like

  17. Natalie – I wish my magic wand could help you, but alas, it’s made of plastic and sequins. Showing is active, this much I know. We are reading the actions of the character as they do them, whereas in narrative/exposition we are reading what has already happened, or, in some cases, what might happen. There are usually exceptions to this rule, just like any other, but that’s how I simplify it when I’m writing/editing.

    Like

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