Monday, March 3, 2008

Actions Speak Louder than Words--at least, they should!: Show, Don't Tell

I've been editing fiction for over 27 years. In all that time, I've discovered a number of issues almost all writers face, regardless of how much they've written or been published. If I had to pick the top issue I see over and over, it would be Show, Don't Tell.

What, you may ask, does that mean? It's actually pretty simple. It's the difference between telling us what someone is feeling, and letting us see it for ourselves through dialogue, action, and body language. For example:

Jack was so angry he could kill.

That, my friends, is telling. But...

Heat filled Jack's face, his chest, his blood. His fingers tightened on the gun. Nobody did this to him. Nobody. His finger caressed the trigger, and he smiled. The fools thought they'd taught him a lesson, but they'd see they were wrong. They'd see it all right...just before they died.

There you have showing. So why does this matter? Telling keeps your readers distant from the characters. Remember, fiction is all about making a connection. Your readers have to care about and be engaged with your characters. Even the bad guys. Showing takes us inside the characters, gets us under their skin, so we feel right along with them.

Does that mean telling is bad? Is it ever okay to tell? Of course. Quality fiction is about balance. Take a look again at the two sections above. What do you notice about them? Right! The showing section is much longer. If you showed every single thing in the book, you'd end up with around 1200 pages of showing. Sure, we'd be inside the characters' heads, but we'd be exhausted! So yes, there are times to tell. Such as:

  • To give information. Sometimes you just want to move the story along, kind of like skipping a stone over the surface of the water. You're not trying to plumb the depths of the river, just get the stone as far as you can. That's called narrative summary, and that's a good time to tell.
  • When a scene or section of a scene doesn't warrant showing. Not every aspect of every scene warrants showing. Let's say your characters are gathering for a funeral, and two of them are going to have a rip-roaring fight in the middle of the funeral. What part of that scene is most important? The fight, of course. Now obviously you could take the time (and word count) to show all the guest arriving, giving us their expressions and emotions, or what the funeral home and casket look like, etc. But that's not necessary. Better to give us all of that in narrative summary, peppering enough descriptives to give the sense and feel, but not digging deep until the crucial moment.
Knowing the difference between showing and telling is fairly easy. But what's hard is recognizing when you're telling. So here are a couple of key things to watch for:

The dreaded –ly adverbs.
"Get out of my house!" Alice said angrily.

Ah-ah-ah! You're telling us she's angry. Instead, show the emotion, whatever it may be, through actions or punctuation. In the example above, the exclamation point tells us Alice is being vehement, but it's not clear if she's angry or frightened.

Alice grabbed his grandmother's vase--the one she knew he loved--and threw it with all her strength. It missed his head by a fraction of an inch and shattered against the wall, the shards as sharp and piercing as Alice's words. "Get out of my house!"

One excellent resource for this, as well as other elements of quality fiction, is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King (Writers' Digest Books). If you don't have a copy of this book on your shelf, get it today! Self-Editing recommends cutting virtually every –ly adverb one you write. It's surprisingly easy to do so. Just use your search-and-replace function, searching for ly with the different punctuation marks after it (ly. ly, ly? ly!) and ly with a space after it. You can get rid of most, if not all, of them in no time.

R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain
Another thing to watch for is author intrusion, which happens when you give us emotion and with, in, of, etc. (e.g., she screamed in frustration). Too often we write great descriptions, then give the reader a recap, just in case they missed the point. Not only is that telling, it's underestimating your reader. Far better, though, to let your characters' words and actions stand on their own. Consider the following:

  • Alice leaned forward eagerly. "I think he's a spy!"
  • When the kitten fell off the chair, Bob laughed in an amused way.
  • Jean's forehead creased in confusion.
  • Dan threw the book at her with an angry toss.

Where is the explaining there? Right! Eagerly, in an amused way, in confusion, with an angry toss. All of those are telling, and all are unnecessary. When you come across an explanation, cut it. If the emotion is still shown and clear, the telling wasn't needed. If it isn't shown, then rewrite to show without explaining. So...
  • Alice leaned forward. "I think he's a spy!" Leaning forward implies eagerness, so this works just by cutting the -ly adverb.
  • When the kitten fell off the chair, Bob laughed. Okay, yes, Bob has a warped sense of humor. But we can see that just fine without the editorial of in an amused way. What's that? Laughter isn't always amused? True enough. Sometimes it's wry, or angry, or sarcastic. That brings up a point to consider with showing: word choices. How about if we used another word like chuckled or chortled or giggled or laughed 'til his sides hurt. One of the keys to showing well is choosing the right words to convey the exact emotion.
  • Jean's forehead creased. Again, the action communicates the confusion, but if you want to be sure it's clear that she's confused, you could add a question from Jean to show her confusion.
  • Dan threw the book at her. Here, too, the action shows anger. One doesn't generally throw things at people if they're happy. (At least, I hope not!) If you want to spice it up a bit, you could show the impact when the book hits something, or use a word like heaved, or add a muttered oath…etc.

One last word on showing: Don't fall into cliches. If your character is angry, don't tell us he's "mad as a hornet." Find a way to make the old new again by putting your spin on it. For example, I had the dubious pleasure of poking a hornets' nest when I was a kid. Yeah, what can I say, I had more chutzpah than brains. So I could write this as "mad as a hive-poked hornet" or "mad as a swarming mass of hornets whose hive has just been invaded by a stick."

All righty, then, here's an exercise to try. Choose two of the following and write a scene that shows each:

  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Danger
  • Revenge
  • Comfort
  • Depression
Again, feel free to post your examples. And have fun!


Richard Mabry said...

Sorry about your pneumonia, but very glad you decided to share your wisdom with us. It brings back memories of sitting in your mentoring group at Mount Hermon, listening to the pearls drop and thinking, "How can this woman have learned so much about writing?" Thanks for sharing.

Lori Benton said...


I chuckled when I saw the difference in word count between your telling and showing examples. Is THIS why my manuscript turned out so long, because I showed everything? Maybe I'm that weird bird that needs to be taught how to tell!

Nicole said...

Very well explained.

pixy said...

So sad I missed Mt. Hermon this year. :(

This is a great run-through of "show vs. tell." I always seem to have trouble with the last one. R.U.E. My critique partners ding me constantly for that.

I thought I may as well, as I've been pondering this issue of late. So, here's one of my examples from my WIP, Golden:

I yank my hand back. My grip tightens on the gun, finger ready to pull back on the trigger. Just do it. Why can't I just do it?

Because he saved my life. He knew what would happen and he walked right into it.


I press harder with the barrel, the tip of my finger grips firmer on the trigger.

Don’t have a choice. I don't have--

And so forth and so on... ;)