Show don’t tell: Dissecting what it looks like

woman with megaphone, show don't tellShow don’t tell.

Does this piece of advice kink you up in knots? Writers hear it all the time from various angles—other writers, editors, and conference workshop instructors.

When I first starting writing, I struggled with it, too. Too many of the blog posts I read only talked about it and never showed any examples. Sample sentences go a long way in helping me recognize mistakes in my writing.

In a recent webinar Q&A, attendees expressed their difficulties with show don’t tell. So today, I’m offering several examples and some explanations that I hope will help you get untied.

Kudos to my client Donna Wittlif who has allowed me to use 2 excerpts from her WIP as illustrations.

Original:

As I get ready for Thanksgiving with David’s family, I do so with trepidation. We haven’t had a date since that Friday night when he talked to me. I saw him at work, where he made frames for my dog and cat paintings, took photos of them for my web page, and we displayed them in the shop window. He says he has too much work to do even though I’ve finished the inventory and stayed a couple hours over last Saturday so he could build frames for his paintings for the Hanks. Sunday he said he had to paint the last picture, and he was working on it at home, so we did nothing. (116 words)

Not everything in the above paragraph is telling. Here is a possible rework:

Five days had passed since my Friday night date with David. I saw him at work, where he made frames for my dog and cat paintings, then took photos of them for my web page. Afterward, we displayed the paintings in the shop window. As we talked, he insisted he had too much to do—his paintings for Mr. and Mrs. Hanks, which he was doing at home. That I had finished the inventory and stayed overtime last Saturday so he could paint didn’t seem to matter. What else besides painting kept him so busy? Not one word about going out on another date crossed his lips.

Now as I prepared for Thanksgiving with his family, trepidation filled my every pore. Would he be romantic? Would he ignore me? Were we friends or was I just an employee? I took a deep breath and decided that no matter how David behaved, I’d be my normal self. (162 words)

Let’s dissect this a bit.

As I get ready for Thanksgiving with David’s family, I do so with trepidation BECAME Now as I prepared for Thanksgiving with his family, trepidation filled my every pore.

I also shifted the placement of that sentence to allow what came before it to build tension and show the character’s frustration. We have a better idea why trepidation fills her. I have also shown the level of her trepidation, whereas before we were left to imagine it.

The character’s inner battle (story conflict) about this relationship needed greater clarity. The text I added showed us that and her decision about it.

He says he has too much work to do BECAME As we talked, he insisted he had too much to do.

The verb says offers no indication of emotion on the part of the character. Insists shows us a degree of emotion and how he expressed it.

So we did nothing BECAME Not one word about going out on another date crossed his lips.

Shows us the character’s frustration, thus creating story tension and conflict to keep the reader reading.

Original:

It was no longer snowing, but the wind was bitterly cold. I caught the bus home, and when I got there, I changed clothes and crawled into bed. I lay there shivering, hurting too much to cry. It is over. I know where I stand with David. (47 words)

Again, not all of the above paragraph is telling. Possible rework:

As I stepped outside, a bitter wind stripped the air from my lungs much the way David’s words had ripped my hopes from my heart. At least the snow had stopped. I caught the bus home, changed clothes, and crawled into bed. I shivered uncontrollably, hurting too much to cry. (50 words)

Telling gives a quick blow by blow of events, but it lacks emotion, tension, and conflict—essential elements to capture reader interest.

Showing often takes more words than telling, but delivers a sensory experience that allows readers to immerse themselves in the story. To feel, along with the character, embarrassed, horrified, thrilled, depressed, outraged, hungry, disgusted, nervous.

Pull from all 5 senses as you write.

If your character is drowning, don’t say “She was drowning.” Help us experience the situation along with your character: Putrid pond water poured into my cowboy boots, the weight of it dragging me under before I could pull in a lungful of life-giving air.

I am not a proponent of all show and no tell. Sometimes telling is what you need. You as the writer, know best when that is. Scribophile has provided an excellent article on the debate, with more examples.

Showing captures your readers and propels them forward through your story page after page. What about show don’t tell gives you trouble?

Thank you, Donna Wittlif, for allowing me to use your WIP as an illustration. Not every writer could do that.

Before you leave, discover the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s all there in my interview today with author Angela Meyer on the Wordsowers blog.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.

Comments

  1. So much to learn, and this helps. Thanks.

  2. Very helpful seeing examples. Thank you!

    • Glad the examples helped. The Scribophile article has some great examples as well. It is a much longer post but has excellent info.

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