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Don't Tell Me- Show Me

Most writers seem to get the broad concept of show don't tell. They know about creating scenes and keeping the reader grounded  in the scene. But some writers still do not get the difference between telling a reader what is going on in a scene and showing them.

The party was in full swing
Heavy metal music bounced from wall to wall. People strained to talk above the pounding noise, or simply gave up and joined those dancing……

Some writers also don't seem to get the little "tells" in a manuscript that can weaken an otherwise decent book.

The pizza smelled so good I felt my mouth water.
The sweet aroma of tomato and basil riding the steam from the top of the pizza made me touch the side of my face to make sure the drool was not running out of my mouth.

Okay, I'll admit, that example could use some professional help, but I think you get what I am suggesting.

I felt myself blush
The heat of a blush crawled up my neck.

He looked alarmed
A niggle of fear made him dart quick glances over his shoulder as he walked the darkened street.

As a little exercise today, if you all are up for it, I welcome any rewrites of my examples to improve on them.

One of the things I know for sure as a writer and an editor, is that the first attempt at putting something on paper - or a computer screen - can always be improved on.

Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.

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  1. Great post! I'm still working on this. So this is a great help.

  2. Examples like this are always helpful reminders.

  3. I totally appreciate this. It also illustrates how "showing" frequently ratchets up your word count like nobody's business. Sometimes more efficient=less engaging.

  4. So glad the post has been helpful. Looking forward to some rewrites of my examples. Or some new examples from some of you.

  5. Vs versus vs.?

    Going back to my room now. Grin.


  6. Thanks for the nice crib sheet for when I start revising the WIP draft (hopefully within the next year.)

  7. Dani, you can edit me anytime you want. In fact, I wish you had before this was posted. There were some mistakes that I caught when I looked at it this morning. When I put in in draft I was hoping one of the esteemed colleagues here would give it a look-see before it was posted. Have I mentioned that every writer needs an editor? LOL

  8. Great examples, Maryann. To add an additional lens, as in my recent postings on deep POV, I always ask myself WHY it is important that the pizza smelled so good, and try to work that in. Such as:

    On the party menu: pizza. Since my cholesterol check I had mourned its loss. That perfect marriage of tomato, basil and melted mozzarella that witnessed my first date, salved my first break-up, and embodied a love that never failed to please me. I watched my brother twirl his tongue around a string of cheese, thoroughly betrayed.

  9. And I agree with Bill--"showing" is definitely where a writer should spend his word count!

  10. Kathryn, thanks for the great rewrite of the pizza example. It shows how important it is to focus on all aspects of the craft and blend them.

  11. Maryann and Kathryn, you did such a good job with that pizza "show" that my mouth watered and I smelled oregano. I think that's what we need to remember as we're doing revisions...we want to activate the reader's senses.

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  13. Thanks for the examples. They’re helpful. My comments below are contextual, if I can say that about writing. That is to say the ideas apply to certain situations, or maybe writing styles is a better way to put it.

    To point out if I may, there is an approach in which the reader is left to fill in the ‘showing’ aspect of a scene with their own imagination. Different people will have a different mental picture of what a party in full swing is like. The characters involved and description of them should gauge the reader in their impression to avoid any inappropriate ideas of what is happening. It may be looked at as cutting a corner, but It permits the story to continue moving without presenting something that might seem off on a tangent. I recall stories that were written in a way that would have created an interest in who the character would meet at the party, without so much detail about the party itself. It's what happened at the party that was of interest.

    How would you suggest dealing with a writing style which is short, efficient, and to the point, when using more words to show what is happening? There’s a risk of coming across poetic which doesn’t fit the rest of the writing. Personally, I think it sounds great, but I have heard criticisms about it. For instance, “He sat at the table and picked up the menu. It was later than he preferred to eat but his schedule left him with little choice. A quick instruction to the waiter, and only ten minutes later his small sized pizza was in front of him. He savored the pizza that made his mouth water, before washing it down with some draft beer. It was getting late and he had to go. He left some money on the table and grabbed his jacket and was out the door.”

    Would you agree that the writing can run the risk of over emphasizing a trait about a character by describing it too much, when that wasn’t the intention? If the passage above showed more about how he enjoyed the pizza, and described the details of his reaction to it—drooling, flavorful aroma, made his senses dance, taste buds jumping, etc… a reader might get the impression the person is a a bit of a pizza aficionado, or that pizza is a favorite food of theirs. But this may not be the case if the description is intended to highlight the pizza, and not a trait about the character—that they love pizza. I’ve seen criticisms about this type of thing. It could create expectations about what will happen later in the story, because the point was made with that extra line or passage in talking about it. However if it is never addressed again, the reader is left wondering “Why all the talk about pizza earlier in the story?”

    I suppose this could be referred to as the intention of the description, or showing. “The restaurant was known for offering the most mouthwatering pizza in town. The sweet smell of basil and the tangy tomato sauce were always nicely complimented by the velvety mozzarella cheese and the nearly perfect crust—never to doughy and never too thin. It made for a perfect bite. And today he was enjoying the restaurant’s reputation by ordering a Pepperoni Special.” A reader should be left with the impression that the restaurant makes great pizza, and the character tried some, not that the character has a special fondness for pizza. He enjoys many foods, including pizza.

    I really like the “He looked alarmed” example. I have “He looked” “She looked” etc… far too much in my current manuscript. I had made a note to edit them.

  14. Frank P.R.: You make a good point here, and one which critique partners will erroneously comment on--the old "all telling is bad" comment. "Showing" isn't the rule, it's a highlighting technique. A way to slow pace and let the reader know, now that his senses are thoroughly engaged, that this is an important piece of this story. That's why I added purpose to my example. There's truly no reason to mention the meal at all if it isn't relevant to the story, and if you fell compelled to mention the menu at all, you can say "He stopped in for a quick slice of pizza" and leave it at that. Yes, you can simply tell us! But if the pizza IS important to the story, or will be--your character will be blinded, and now recalls the "experience" of pizza by recalling this olfactory event, then showing is the perfect way to highlight the moment.

  15. Kathryn,
    I like your comment about the necessity of mentioning the menu or even the meal at all. I suppose this is where the craft of writing comes into play, knowing when to write something and why you are writing it. “There's truly no reason to mention the meal at all if it isn't relevant to the story,…” Your comment reminds me of an observation made about the final scene of King Lear, one of the world’s most studied books. In the final scene the description of his death is [(He) Dies]. I think showing is important and adds an element which writing should have, and at the same time the article shows (there’s that word again) the subjectivity that exists in writing. Look forward to reading the next articles…

  16. Your examples have helped point out to me some of my own weak points. I hadn't even thought that those lines would count as 'telling' until you mentioned them. This has helped open my eyes.

    Of course, remember that sometimes those short telling lines are better. Sometimes showing can slow the action. Sometimes slowing the action can up the tension. Sometimes its just boring.

    As always, dare to break the rules ... just be sure you remember to do so consciously and with full understanding of your own reasons.

  17. The comment posted in Chinese roughly translates to "The human cannot look like the animal to live equally, but should pursue the knowledge and the moral excellence," or "The human cannot look like the animal to live equally, but should pursue the knowledge and America
    Germany ……………………………."

    It's not my own translation but from a translating software.

    Does anyone want to try to put relevant meaning to the philosophical and somewhat obscure statements? A bit of a break from a day of editing.


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