Friday, December 14, 2012

Show me your story; don't just tell it to me.

This post first ran here on September 4, 2008.


Something I’ve learned about good, impactful writing in fiction is knowing when you are “telling” the readers your story and when you are “showing” it to them. There is a place in a good book for both methods, but the “shown” passages are always more dramatic and dynamic. They create two entirely different effects. Instead of telling you the difference, I will show you. Here is a short paragraph, an example of a story being told to the reader.

Bob walked over to the door. He turned the door knob, opened the door and started to walk outside. It was an icy cold winter day so he went back inside in a hurry and put on his coat.
Well, if I’m the reader I haven’t missed anything, I know what’s happening, but the passage doesn’t draw me into Bob’s world, doesn’t let me feel or sense much of anything. Now I’ll rewrite the same passage showing you the story.

Floor boards creaked underfoot. Step by step, across the room. The chill of cold brass felt smooth as the knob turned in his palm. A thunk nudged against the quiet as the bolt released from its locked position. The squeak of old hinges whined “please oil me” to Bob in their pivot. A final push and a step. Whistling arctic wind whipped against skin as shivers crept all up and down.

Wow. Cold. Bob thought better of his choice of clothing. Slam!

Nippy fingers worked their way through the dark foyer closet, feeling for heavy suede

Isn’t that a lot more fun and entertaining to read?

Written by Marvin D Wilson


  1. I resort to telling during parts in the book when I need to hurry the plot along, but I agree the best choice is showing.

    Using as many senses as you can makes more impactful scenes.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I agree, Morgan. You have to pick your spots. A fight scene, for instance is often better to "tell" in short powerful two or three words sentences. It's all about the pace you desire, which is another topic I like to write about in terms of good writing.

    Marvin D Wilson
    Blogs at:
    eye wtitter 2 -

  3. Descriptive words can get in the way of the action. If you're aware of the author's well chosen words more than what's taking place, suspense falls by the wayside. I agree with Morgan. Using as many senses as possible pulls the reader into the story. But if you use too many at once, it also detracts from the action.

    BTW, Marvin, what's a thunk?

  4. I agree with everyone else. Strong verbs and use of all the senses means strong writing.

    Sometimes as authors we write in a way that tells the story rather than in a way that lets the reader live the story. But that's what editing is for, in a way. As we go back and re-read, we can decide where we need to change and what we need to change.

  5. Good stuff.

    My fiction mentor taught us about camping and marching.

    If there are scenes in a work in which there's no need to get longwinded and over-explain, we need to MARCH through those scenes -- show what is necessary, or tell exactly we as readers need to know.

    If there are scenes in a work that are paramount to the story, then the writer needs to CAMP...settle awhile, making sure to develop the scene fully.

    It's been a method I used to weed out unnecessary, boring passages in work.

  6. Jean-

    "Thunk" is an onomatopoeic word, perhaps coined by me (under prosaic license) - representing a sound not unlike a deadbolt thrown loose or closed within its cylinder. I'm sure you've heard it before. I thunk it fit pretty good in this scene.

  7. A well-written descriptive scene paints a vivid word picture in the mind of the reader. Inviting that reader into the scene as a spectator heightens interest in the story. Taking the reader by the hand and pulling him or her into the lives of the characters creates a powerful link by making the reader a participant in the story. All three elements have a place in a successful novel, but the one that compels the reader to walk alongside the protagonist (or the victim, etc.) captivates that reader and makes him a fan who can't wait for your next book.

  8. Another great selection from our older posts. I really think having the example brings the lesson home. Talk about the benefit of showing vs telling. (smile)

  9. Great example shown. This is a hard concept for writers to understand unless they see an example. It's a keeper!


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