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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Show vs Tell

What are some of the topics you would like to see discussed here during the upcoming weeks? Feel free to leave your responses as comments below.

This week let's look at something that has been a huge factor in my own writing experiences and I'm sure it's something the rest of you have at least heard of.

Show versus tell.

Some of you are thinking "What's that?" right? Let me give you an example of each and then I will explain them.

Example A: He boiled water.

Example B: Shawn filled the pot from his faucet and placed it on the stove top, lighting the fire beneath. He watched the bubbles dance, before adding in the noodles.

So which is show and which is tell? Anybody?

The first one tells us what is happening. It's a secondhand report, with no specific character or setting. It's general and very boring. Leaves a lot to be desired, huh?

The second one shows what is happening. It adds action to the scene, and gives a specific character and setting, making it an immediate scene. Instead of simply "boiling water" he's filling the pot, placing it on the stove, lighting the stove, and watching the water boil. How I described the bubbles also makes the visual come alive with more action.

Here is another example:

Example A: She blushed. tell

Example B: Sally's cheeks bled crimson as the heat filled her face. Matt winked at her. She scuffed her foot and the color deepened. show

Again the second one adds action to the scene. That my fellow writers is the key behind showing.

Both have the same emotion behind them - embarrassment. But the second one shows her blushing and scuffing her feet. It adds action to the scene. The first one only tells us what is taking place. See the difference?

Okay now if you are still confused, here is one directly from Stein On Writing:

Example A: He took a walk. tells.

Example B: He walked as if against an unforeseen wind, hoping that someone stop him. shows, because it gives the reader a sense of what the character wants.

Again the example above was a direct one quoted from Stein On writing. No one can argue with that.

I'm telling you straight up, there is no "secret formula" to mastering show vs tell. As the author, you need to use a combination of each in order to keep the prose {writing} fresh and keep it engaging. Too much telling makes for a very boring read. Same for too much showing. You have to find the combination that works best for you and your style of writing.

Bored readers most likely won't buy anymore of your books, which equals lost sales, and lost contracts. Ah you get the point.

When writing the bottom line always has to be:

"What do my readers want or expect to see?"

As authors it is our job to entertain the readers. That means giving them a story that feels original. As authors we need to be able to predict how our readers will react and then surprise them, instead of giving them what they expect will happen. But, that's for another post later down the road.

Back to the topic at hand. Practice with this and see what you can come up with. Maybe take a week off your current writing project. Then take one scene, be it one you quickly make up, or one that is really be a pain in the neck. Take your scene and practice showing the actions and then tell to describe the scenery. You'll be surprised how well the writing will improve.

As for me, I'm waiting for another book that was suggested to me by a crit partner. It's supposed to arrive tomorrow. I can't wait to get my hands on it! I'll be spending the weekend reading it and maybe read a book or two just for fun.

All work and no playtime makes for a bored writer. and bored writers simply can't produce their best work. Seriously, if you try to force it, your writing will come out terrible. Trust me. The age old adage "been there, done that" applies here. It will show in the quality of your writing. So when you find things aren't taking shape like they need to, you need to take a break.

What are some of the way you like to show rather than tell? What are some of the moments where you feel telling is better than showing? Feel free to respond in your comments below. Come on. Don't be shy. You know you want to. XD

Reference Material: Stein On Writng By Sol Stein.


  1. If all you do is show, then the reader gets bored. Sometimes, "her face flushed a deep crimson as she turned her head away, trying to ignore the burning heat in her cheeks," is long and annoying. At times, "She blushed," works so much better. It all depends on the situation.

    Though, hun, I should warn you now that the first two examples you gave about the boiling water were both telling. "He did this. He did that." It's not showing us what's going on. It's telling us he did something.

    Just thought you should know ;)

  2. Actually it's showing in the second ones. Show adds action to the scene. :)

  3. Nope. That's not true. You can add action to a scene and still be telling. You're not showing us what's happening. You're telling us he did that. You're not describing anything, just saying it's happening. That's telling.

  4. The first is a "second hand report. The second is an immediate scene. That's another difference between them.

  5. Also the first is narrative summary, with no specific setting or character. The second gives a specific location and character.

  6. No, that's not true. I don't know where you got that from, but it's not true. They may be a little different in style, but they are both telling us specifically that "he boiled the water." That sentence is used in both. It's telling us exactly what he did. (Plus, you've changed it from the first time I saw it). Were you to show it, it would go more like this:

    "Shawn grabbed the pot, bringing it over to the faucet, turning it on. When the pot filled halfway, he carried the now heavy object to the stove, lighting it so the flames could dance beneath the iron cage.

    After placing it on the stove, he backed off, waiting patiently for the water to bubble, signaling the pasta could be added."

    Granted, there's no point in writing all of that for a boiling scene. Just say, "he boiled the water before adding in the pasta." It's shorter, tells the reader the information, and moves on. It doesn't give us too much because it's not extremely important. Unless it's a cooking story, but those tend to lack excitement without pictures anyway.

  7. Ugh... that little blurb was horribly written... oh well.

    Kitty, you've never seemed to be able to grasp the whole concept of show don't tell. That's fine. Very few actually do. But if you don't completely understand it, don't blog about it because then you can confuse the readers who use what you say, then get shot down because they're telling, not showing.

    Read a lot more about it. And I mean a lot. Don't take what just one person says (which is what I think you're doing). Research it on the internet for a long time. Look at 10 sources minimum. Try and get trusted sites, but you won't always be able to. Then talk about it. But right now you're still not understanding it as much as you think you do.

    As a writer, I may not understand it completely. As a reader, however, I do.

  8. I do take more than one resource. Those books I buy for instance. I'm just passing along what I learn from them and others.

  9. Then you're not understanding what they're saying.

  10. Yes I do. I only used one example from the book. {the last one} The other two were mine. Granted they aren't very relevant to a book, unless it's a cooking book as you said. But that wasn't my point with this post. The point was to explain the differences between tell and show.