Show, Don’t Tell

When I was home in California last Christmas, I was clearing out a box of my things at my parents’ house. As a writer, sometimes it’s fun to look back at your earliest work and see how far you’ve come. I got to go over some of my earliest hits, like the very first short story I ever wrote: a ten page fantasy from fourth grade about the world’s richest rabbit. I also came upon my first manuscript ever: the historical novel I’d penned in high school. Reading through that was tragic.

It was very tough reading through my early works because I noticed I did a lot of showing, rather than telling. As you foray deeper into the world of writing, you’ll probably come upon this critique more and more from professors, peers, or just other writers in general.

So, what does that mean exactly?

If you struggle to differentiate between showing versus telling, don’t worry because you aren’t alone. Plenty of writers struggle with it. It all refers to the actions in your story. When you “tell,” you’re basically just informing the reader of what is going on rather than letting them deduce it for themselves. In other words, you’re just supplying them the information by stating it. Think of it as being the Captain Obvious of your own story. Examples of this would be telling the reader that the character is “upset,” “hungry,” or “cold.”

Instead, showing is basically painting a word picture for the reader to see in their mind’s eye. Rather than tell the reader the character is “angry,” “hungry,” or “cold,” you describe it to them with action. So your character can “slam a door so hard a picture falls off the wall,” or they can “take a sip of water to try and quell the feeling of acid burning in their stomach,” or they can “reach for an extra blanket.”

Instead of telling your reader what is going on, try to make them an interactive part of the experience – make them be able to close their eyes and see it as if they’re reliving a memory. I mean, we’re all readers ourselves so we know there is nothing better than being a reader with an active role in the narrative.

If you need more concrete examples, I’ve written some below:

Tell: When she hugged him, she could tell he’d been smoking.

Show: As he wrapped his arms around her, the faint waft of stale tobacco hit her nose.

Tell: Emily was blind.

Show: Emily’s white cane struck the side of the curb.

Tell: It was late fall.

Show: The orange leaves crunched beneath our feet.

Tell: The man was a plumber and he asked where the kitchen was.

Show: His coveralls were stained with white paint on the left leg. Wrenches of various sizes hung down from the leather belt around his waist. “Point me towards the leak,” he said.

Tell: The date was going well and Tom let his food go cold listening to Lisa’s stories.

Show: Tom’s baked potato had lost its halo of steam as he smiled and asked, “Please tell me the end of that German hostel story.”

Now, you may be wondering if telling is ever acceptable? And yes, it is. However, keep in mind that telling is just summary narrative. It doesn’t add any value to your plot/conflict/character/tension arc, but it can be used when you have to include the mundane but necessary information. In short, you want to do a majority of showing, but sometimes you have to tell some of the smaller, less important things. It’s a writing yin and yang – showing and telling both balance each other out. You just need to figure out the balance that works for the story.

Cardinal Sins in Writing

Amateur writers make a lot of mistakes. After all, writing is a learning process. You should always practice, practice, practice, and get your work edited, but what about during the process itself? What is it you should avoid as much as possible before you send your work out to the beta-readers? There are a lot of cardinal sins in writing. I will go over several here. Chances are if you have one or more of these in your story, your lit agent, or publisher will give your work a pass. In no particular order of importance, they are:

1. Tell, do not show. You tell me someone is angry, happy, or sad. You do not describe the body language to allow myself to make that judgment for myself. You use adverbs out the wazoo. A good rule of thumb, avoid using emotive words altogether. Also, avoid using descriptive dialogue tags when said and ask should suffice.

2. You use Passive Voice. The plane was exploded by a bomb instead of: A bomb exploded the plane. Was, were, had, to be, being, has been, have been, etc. All are passive verbs. Now you don’t have to try to eliminate all your passive verbs, but your action verbs should considerably outnumber your passive verbs.

3. Your Main Character is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu. Your character can do everything. They are smart, beautiful, strong, fast, sexually attractive (I’m talking h-a-w-t), can fight with just any kind of weapon, cast spells, the child of a god, (sigh!) the list goes on. Or maybe, they are not all those things, but you’ve constructed the story so that every challenge your main character faced, they just breezed right through.

4. Your story has no tension. Are the victories and arguments your character faced too easy? No setbacks? No twists? Everyone just goes along with the MC just because they are awesome? Yeah, don’t do this.

5. You pacing is disjointed. You put the climax in the middle of the book and the denouement is the wrap up from there on out. When gearing up for that epic battle, it completely fizzles or worse yet, it’s extraordinarily brief or doesn’t happen at all. Remember, your readers are conditioned to enjoy a completed story of beginning, middle, climax, denouement.

6. You switch POVs. Either choose First or Third Person. There are others, but uncommon and not really used effectively. If you choose First Person, then your story is told through your Main Character(s)’ eyes and by what they know. We don’t have the luxury to get into someone else’s head unless your MC can read minds. Third Person is quite common (and there are different subtypes), but if you switch POV’s from one character to the next, give us a scene break or chapter break so we know we’re hopping around. Second Person or other styles are very rare – use with caution.

7. You info-dump. If you write about the elves’ special coming-of-age ritual, we don’t need to know every single little detail about it unless necessary and especially if you tell it as if I’m sitting in History class. If we don’t need to know it for the story, odds are you didn’t need to tell us. Cut it out.

8. You did not research your story at all (or enough). You have a battle in the early 1800’s and your MC mans a Gatling gun, mowing down enemies. Except that the gun wasn’t invented and put into use until the American Civil War. Make sure you have done all the necessary research related to your story. If you set your story in an era where there is a lot of contention or debate among prominent historians/scientists, your safer bet is to go with the more popular accepted theory.

9. You did not write for the market. You love Twilight. You decide to write a love triangle with a sparkle vampire, a buffed werewolf, and a human girl who needs a boyfriend. Except no publisher wants a Twilight clone. They are done with it. They are also done with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey,and Game of Thrones. They are sick of the Chosen One trope. All of this is clearly written in their submission guidelines, but you wrote your Twilight story anyways. Was your story good? We won’t know unless you self-publish because that’s your only course of action from here.

In short, finish your story, and get it done. But after that, go through and look for all these areas of perceived weakness. Clean it up. Then gather your beta-readers to let them look for any weaknesses you missed.