Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Show vs. Tell

Show me, don't tell me. Replace narrative with action. Don't rattle on about your character's traits. Put you character in a situation where you can show those traits.

If you've been writing for more than fifteen seconds, you've heard some version of the "show, don't tell" mantra. The first time the phrase was hurled at me, I was sitting in a freshman year English class. The instructor held up my essay as a shining example of "acceptable" writing, then read the paragraph in which I'd used the forbidden word "felt."

The instructor was not pleased. She said we obviously didn't hear her previous three lectures. We must be deaf. So she'd speak up. She proceeded to shout. "Don't tell me your character is happy or sad. Show me! Don't tell me your hero is brave or cowardly. Show me!" The instructor continued with her list of offenses while hurling our papers at us and demanding we try again.

I thought she was nuts. How do you show feelings? In the mood she was in, I wasn't about to ask in public, so I stayed after class and asked in private. I needn't have bothered. She answered in a voice loud enough for everyone on the quad to hear. She declared me an unimaginative idiot. Of course you can show feelings. Couldn't I tell how people felt by simply observing them? When she stopped her tirade long enough to take a breath, I whispered a quick thank you and ran, red-faced, from the classroom.

That instructor didn't have great people skills, but I never forgot the lesson.

What brought on this lovely memory? Chapter one of Self-Editing for for Fiction Writers is called "Show and Tell." The chapter thoroughly covers the topic with information and examples, but I wanted to gather everything I had on the topic before attacking the exercises at the end of the chapter.

I'm an excellent procrastinator!

I searched in vain for my college notes. (Yes, I did keep them. I just don't know where I stored them on my last move.) I found several other texts that address the topic, but without examples, and I found previous articles here at The Blood-Red Pencil with good examples - including:

Little Things Mean A Lot by Morgan Mandel – demonstrates how to show character traits

Feelings… by Maryann Miller - provides examples on how to show feelings

Show me your story; don’t just tell it to me by Marvin Wilson (the master of short titles) provides a fine example of the difference between showing and telling.

Even great procrastinators need to eventually perform some useful task. So after reviewing the handy checklist at the end of chapter one, "Show and Tell", I went to work on my latest mystery novel. Here's an abbreviated version of the checklist:
  • Are there long passages where nothing happens in real time?

  • Do you have too much narrative summary?

  • Are you missing narrative summary between scenes to give the reader a break?

  • Are you describing your characters feelings?

For my story, I had to introduce two new characters, establish one as a homophobic banker and the other as a bouncer (in a gay bar) who isn't fond of women. I also needed to educate the reader on some weapons my protagonist will use in the near future. How would you accomplish this? I'll post my solution in the comments. I hope you'll give it a shot as well.
Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:

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  1. Before I share my draft, I'd like to ask the editors here to please provide links to (or dates of) other posts about showing vs. telling. I know I didn't find all of them. I looked for one in particular that contained vivid examples and was not able to find it.

    Second, Mark and I have been through several rounds of editing on the early chapters of The Golden Key (the source of my example), so I can safely say that the published version will read differently than this example. For starters, Dale's name has changed because I kept confusing Dale and Dwight.

    I decided it wasn't fair to post a polished version when asking everyone else to provide a draft. So, I pulled the following paragraphs from the original draft.

    “… were no associated wire transfer records, nothing. Everyone thought it was a hoax or some elaborate embezzlement scheme.”

    As my date droned on about the ins and outs of the financial world, I continually scanned the crowd. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just anything out of the ordinary. Out-of-the-ordinary is tough to identify when you are sitting in a gay biker bar where the staff dresses in costume – including pink leather chaps and form-fitting jeans. Still, the threats Dwight had been receiving were escalating in number and language. Dwight hired me to spot trouble before it happens and hopefully keep his customers safe.

    “For the record, you’d make a great guy, Eva, but you’re missing some vital equipment and no amount of accessories will change that.” Dale, the bouncer, had left his post and inserted himself into our conversation. I wondered if that meant he was interested in Lou. “She ain’t no guy, man. She’s a guy wanna-be.”

    I so enjoy having my character assessed – in public, by people who barely know my name. I wanted to slay Dale with my wit, but wasn’t going to get a word in edgewise. Good thing, since I didn’t have anything witty to say.

    “You’re date’s a PI – a man’s job. She knows she doesn’t measure up, so she tries to make up for it in accessories. Look what she’s carrying tonight – that necklace is a weapon called a kubotan, and the arm jewelry is a manriki-gusari. You don’t want to piss her off enough to make her reach for that, she can make you hurt, man. Unless you’re into pain, then you might enjoy having her use it on you. We’re in the same martial arts classes. Last week she nearly beat the sensei with that thing.

    "She’s also no slouch with the 9mm peashooter she’s hiding under vest. Now if she was serious, she’d be carrying a real gun. Like this.” Dale pulled his jacket aside just far enough to show off his massive side arm. “This is what a real weapon looks like. You can stop an elephant with a single shot from this baby.”

    Dale didn’t seem to notice, but the more he babbled, the more color drained from Lou’s face. He also didn’t notice his boss heading for him. Dwight didn’t like it when his staff hit on the customers and he looked ready to chew Dale a new one.


    That's mine. I'm looking forward to reading your solution.

  2. Nice post, Charlotte. I could just see that instructor yelling at you. What a great way to show her anger and frustration. :-)

    Not sure how you wanted us to respond to your excerpt. I must say, however, that the central character sure is intriguing, and I did not know that there were gay biker bars. Interesting.

  3. Maryann, I'm glad to have another chance to ask you about your previous column. Here's the example you gave:

    "Doc ran his hands over a face haggard with fatigue. He looked like a man who had been on call for two days."

    You later added:

    "...the POV was from another character looking at Doc."

    I then asked:

    "And if it hadn't been, would you consider "felt" acceptable?"

    From the character's POV and not someone else's, how would you avoid the dreaded "felt" in your example?

  4. I hear an echo in here. (Smile) Thanks for the link to my post, and RIGHT ON with this post, Charlotte.

  5. Great post. I enjoyed reading it and was glad to see you refer to other B-RP contributor examples as well.

  6. Thanks for including the link to my post. It is so much more effective to show and not tell. Show not tell does get easier the more you do it.

    Morgan Mandel


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