Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Five "Show Don't Tell" Danger Zones


Showing is illustrated through actions and interiority rather than the author telling us how the character is reacting and behaving.

Telling often involves adverbs and adjectives. Look for bland descriptive words like: attractive, dumb, embarrassing, fabulous, fascinating, handsome, hilarious, mad, powerful, pretty, smart, stunning, stupid, tired, and ugly. Telling is fertile ground for clichés. Make it fresh. 

Here are five danger zones to watch out for.

1. Action: Don't tell us what a character does; describe what constitutes the action.

Telling: Dick worked hard.

Showing: Dick wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. He lifted the axe and swung: thunk, swipe, thunk. The chunk of wood sheared into small pieces. Each blow reverberated through his shoulders and back.

Telling: Jane walked quickly through the aisles, tossing in items without looking at them.

Showing: Jane strode down the aisles, grabbing boxes of cereal and crackers and cans of soup, reaching for familiar colors and logos, more concerned about getting back to the case than her menu plans for the week.

2. Emotions: Show the emotion, don't name it.

Telling: Jane felt sad.

Showing: Jane sat at her desk, staring at the coffee ring on the scarred surface. She traced the stain with her finger as tears slid down her cheek and landed in the faded circle.

Telling: Dick was tired.

Showing: Dick slumped in the recliner, kicked off his loafers, and loosened his tie. He stared at the blank television screen. He didn't bother to turn it on.

3. Character Description: Don't tell us a character is (insert generic adjective - ugly, pretty, fat, thin). Describe the character in a fresh, not cliché, way. What about her is pretty or ugly? What does the point of view character consider pretty or ugly? What is attractive to one person might not be to another.

Telling: The dead hooker looked like a child dressed up for Halloween.

Showing: The victim was slightly built and a smidge over four-foot tall. Her clothes were loose, as if she were playing dress up in her mother's clothes, and the garish makeup was  inexpertly applied. She was more lost little girl than professional woman of the night.

Telling: Dick was a powerfully built man. He drew everyone’s attention when he entered the room.

Showing: Dick strode into the bar. The crowd parted to allow him through. Conversations stopped mid-sentence. His wide shoulders brushed onlookers as he passed, sloshing the beer from their mugs.

5. Description of setting.

Telling: The place was a dump.

Showing: Leftovers, half-empty cups, and discarded food wrappers littered the fifties-era furnishings and orange shag carpet.

Telling: The city was ultra-modern, cold, and austere.

Showing: Mirrored glass buildings rose skyward like jagged icicles. Everything else was gray concrete, even the traffic signs were black and white.The only color came from the occasional tattered billboard, probably relics the city had not yet torn down.

When relating information, it is important to keep in mind which character is narrating the information. Unless you are writing omniscient POV, the scene is being played out in front of a specific character. Use your character's inner voice to describe what is happening in the scene.

For more information on revision and showing versus telling check out:

Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers e-book

Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers paperback




Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

16 comments :

  1. Good post, Diana, and I love the examples for the most part. However I like "The dead hooker looked like a child dressed up for Halloween." To me that line evokes a mental image that somehow gets lost in the lengthy description. That said, I did like what you did to describe Dick. The first description was so bland and ordinary, whereas the first description of the hooker, comparing her to a kid dressed up like Halloween, is not something we've read in a jillion books. (Jillion is my new favorite word. )

    Telling, when done with fresh wordings and kept to a minimum in a story can have it's impact. When I read your first description of the hooker, I immediately thought of a detective looking at the body and having that thought.

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  2. The first example is fine, but the second is more specific. That is a good way to think of it: telling tends to be general and showing tends to be specific.

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  3. Great post, Diana. And at the perfect time to redo a visual I'd written about a rundown house. My critique partner is always making me show when I don't. However, I'm not really fond of over-showing. If it's not done right, it takes you away from the scene or the person and puts the reader someplace else.

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    1. I think you should always keep your verbal camera focused on the important details and skip over the things that don't matter. But when you do focus the camera, use good words.

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  4. Good thoughts ... and it got me humming Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone from Top Gun.

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    1. Great song isn't it? It will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. :)

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  5. Fantastic post, Diana. Showing almost always trumps telling, provided, of course, the right words are chosen and the "show" is concise. Whenever possible, it's also best to choose powerful verbs rather than forms of "to be." Love the examples by the way. :-)

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    1. I have an entire spreadsheet for verbs. They require their own revision pass.

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  6. Great examples here, Diana. I always worry about being wordy, since my natural inclination is toward 'less is more'.

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    1. Less can be more at times. Tom Clancy comes to mind as someone who is very wordy but sells exceptionally well.

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  7. Keeping in the character's POV and keeping things fresh - good advice and can be challenging. Going overboard to avoid telling can slow the pace. As with everything else, balance is important.

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    1. There is a difference between character "telling" and author "telling." And not everyone deserves paragraph time.

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  8. We can always use this reminder.

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  9. debby turner harrisMarch 4, 2015 at 1:03 AM

    This was a super article. Your examples admirably illustrate the critical distinction between telling and showing. With your permission, I'd like to refer some of my clients to this post.

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  10. A timely reminder! It's so easy to slip back into bad habits.

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  11. This is such a valuable tool - thanks for sharing! Showing versus telling can also be applied to all kinds of other opportunities, e.g. creating business pitches, conveying sympathy, blog posts etc. Here's an article I wrote from the perspective of a fiction editor, if you're interested: http://catehogan.com/show-dont-tell-rule/

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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