Monday, February 14, 2011

Show Don't Tell

Probably the first guideline we learn when we want to be writers is "show don't tell."  It's easier said than done, of course, but without a doubt it's also the easiest way to separate the amateurs from the pros when it comes to storytelling.

Sometimes it's necessary to tell, especially with setting.  The trick there is to be sure the telling doesn't sound like it's in the author's voice.  Have it come from the character's voice and express a legitimate character need, not the author's need to tell.

Telling can be distancing (She took her shoes off and walked across the pebble beach to the ocean's waves.) Showing, on the other hand, is intimate and immediate (Foam from the crashing waves gobbled the pebbles of the beach, racing toward her, and threw its icy fingers over her bare toes.) Showing puts the reader right in there with the characters and lets him/her vicariously experience what's going on.  This is certainly a desirable place to be for a reader, and as writers, we want to get our readers there frequently. The key to show, don't tell, is to dramatize the narrative, or "put it in scene."

Who doesn't remember this childhood scary tale line: "Slowly he came, step by step, inch by inch . . ."  Jumping up and down and screams all around! How boring it would have been to start, instead, with "The monster came into the room to eat up the little children."

One of my favorite examples of showing is from a contemporary author of fun crime fiction (I'm inventing categories), Colin Cotterill.  His opening paragraph of Anarchy and Old Dogs describes a blind man retrieving mail from the post office.  Immediately below is my rendering of it that makes it more telling than showing (with profound apologies to Mr. Cotterill).  Following that is his paragraph.

Mine:  Dr. Buagaew was blind, but he managed to get around fine.  At the post office he walked directly to the p.o. box section from memory and reached out to touch the wood boxes.  He felt for the loop of wool that was wound around the door of his box to make it easy for him to find.  When he found it, he ran his hand over it to find the keyhole, then fingered the key into it and opened the box.  He reached in to find the thin envelope he was expecting.  His co-conspirator had delivered, as promised.

Colin Cotteril's:  The post office box was eighteen across, twelve down, and it had a loop of wool wound around the door so Dr. Buagaew wouldn't miss it.  He traced the keyhole with his left hand and inserted the key with his right.  From inside the wooden chamber came the scent of bygone correspondence:  of brown paper parcels and glue, of old parchment and secrets.  His hand fell upon a thin envelope.  He knew it would be there and he knew what it contained because only one other person was aware of the post office box address.

What's so great about Cotteril's rendering of this paragraph is that he actually shows us that the doctor is blind, without using any clichés like tapping a white cane. Between the wool loop, tracing the keyhole, and the wonderful scents he notices, we know without being told.

What's your feeling about show don't tell?  Is it something you do naturally, or do you work at it? Do you have examples of telling vs. showing?  It's always great to add more ideas to the arsenal for that ever-greedy show don't tell monster.



  1. Excellent examples, I love those! You put it perfectly when you said if you must show then do so in the character's voice not the author's. That's what it's all about right there, remembering who's story it is! Thank you for this great post.

  2. Thank you for a great post Linda. First,I blame kindergarten for making us show and tell. There was always more telling that showing. One of my greatest challenges when someone said,"You're telling," was to figure out how to show instead. At first, I couldn't see it. And then the skies parted. I get it. I can actually see it. Yes, we can train our brains. I had to work at it at first, but it's getting easier. There is hope if this is a challenge.

  3. Heather, thank you. Remembering that it's the characters' story—that's a perfect way to think of it!

    Karlene, I love how well you show your characters in crisis! But it makes me afraid to fly!! :-)

  4. Linda,

    There has been so much of this subject in the blogosphere. But, many writers are confused because they open up books loaded with passive voice.... was', weres, hads, etc.

    I myself picked up an old favorite and it was loaded, I mean over ten was' and weres. IF the publishers want active voice and showing, then why are the book shelves loaded with books that tell and are inactive.

    Isn't the whole point of writing to TELL a story, not show. I personally think the whole showing thing is way over-rated. I think, as I always say, there should be a balance of all. Sometimes a reader wants to get lost in a beautiful scene of description, feel as if you are among the forests, glens, or lakes.

    I think action should be SHOWED by a story should be told. Now that I'm really confused, let's get back to writing.... lol



  5. Showing is definately important to let readers jump in and swim through our description and feel our stories. Sometimes I think writers can go off on a crazy tangent of showing details/actions that are unneeded in the first place.

  6. Michael, you made me laugh, but in sympathy! I feel exactly the same frustrations with the 'rules' which obviously don't always apply. What counts is good writing, right? Good description is wonderful and I love writing it and reading it. Genre really seems to affect the choices on how much action and how much description, but there's still truth in the appeal of being right there with the character, no matter the genre. Being 'in scene' does that. I try to do that whenever it makes sense, so I guess that's my shot at balance! Thanks for a great, thought-provoking comment!

  7. Hi Diana, thanks for your comment! Great scenes definitely don't include a lot of details or behaviors that are just self-indulgent on the writer's part. Excellent point.