Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Showing vs. Telling

I knew this post wouldn't take long to get onto my blog.

After all, a large portion of my revision time is spent searching out Telling sentences.

So what is a telling sentence?

To my mind, almost every sentence containing some form of the verb is. Worst case scenario: form of verb is and a form of verb be.

E.g. He was so annoyed right then.


He was being occupied by that girl again.

Brrr. Terrible.

But how to solve it?

I try to do it in a few steps.

1) I look for the point I'm trying to convey. The first sentence is about the guy's annoyance. The second one is about the girl occupying him.

2) Then I determine the feeling that I'm trying to bring across. In the first sentence, it seems to be about the guy's anger/frustration/annoyance. The second one is about the View Point Character's annoyance with the situation (the that gave it away).

3) Finally, I put the two together, using actions, stronger verbs and the VP Characters feeling. Note: There's no rule that says that all this has to be done in one sentence.

So sentence one will change to:

His eyes narrowed as his anger rolled over me in waves. My bravado fled as he took a menacing step forward. I really shouldn't have pushed him this far.

And sentence two:

No... that bastard wouldn't rush for the world. Not with the leggy blond draping herself over his shoulders. I grasped my champagne glass and downed the contents.

Those sentences still aren't that perfect, but at least they give me something to work with in future round of edits.

How do you convert "Tells" to "Shows"?


  1. I honestly try to walk the middle line and provide some tell but also some show. I try to judge when to do so because not everything should be "shown" in my opinion plus it's a lot of extra work to put on the writer and makes your word count "balloon".

  2. Look for filter words, too. See, heard, taste, feel...this will get rid of tell, too. I've seen a lot of this in Newbie's stuff and I'm sure the already NYC best are counting on us to fail in that area.

  3. I just dunno how to show and how to tell!!

    but one thing is simple, to me, if the character speaks, of himself, of his doubts and his feelings then .. it is showing!!

    with warm regards
    Another Author

  4. Great post- It was difficult for me to learn how to show instead of tell but using sensory details helped me a lot.

  5. You cannot remove all the tells but have to find a middle ground. When I write, I prefer to use physical expressions and actions and this helps to show.

  6. Great examples. I definitely try to look for stronger words and pretty much look for spots that start to bore me. LOL

  7. I agree that you can not remove all the tells so I try to first look at the ones that I can show well and have interesting descriptions. Then I look for others when the reading gets slow.

  8. Um....I don't look for show vs tell when I edit. Right now I'm trying to figure out my crutch word in my manuscript because it's not the same one that I have with writing my blog posts (justs, so, etc).

    I'm a bad writer.

  9. When I come across a sentence that is telling instead of showing, I stop for a moment and try to really picture what's going on. For instance, if I had written your example sentence, "He was so annoyed right then." I would try to think of what about him seems annoyed. Is it the way that his eyebrows are furrowed and how the lines on his forehead deepen? Is he clenching his fists? Sighing? And when I realize what the product of the annoyance is, I write that instead. So instead of "He was so annoyed right then." I might write, "Deep lines spread across his forehead and he sighed sharply." It shows that he is annoyed.

  10. Show not tell, it's an ever important one, and one I try really hard to avoid in the first draft and will be very conscious of as I head into the second draft.

  11. Great post! Thanks for the tips.

    252 clicks from this site, and I didn't even see my blog listed on the side column. Go figure?


  12. I try to picture everything in my head, and when I get to a place where it goes flat, that's usually the result of telling. It's easier to spot in other people's work, of course! (and--this fake extra traffic thing's still going on, and if you look at the Blogger forums, tons of people are having the same issue)

  13. Like the above comments say, you have to tell some of the time or you'd end up with a massive tome of a book but the nitty gritty action needs to be shown. Sometimes I'll rewrite about 2000 words from 3rd person to 1st person and back again because that seems to help me bring out the action.

  14. However much I try I still find there's un-necessary telling in my writing. Once it's been pointed out to me I go through pretty much the sequence you describe here. For example, I try to think what sensations are associated with the emotion, then describe it in terms of those sensations instead of just stating that the emotion has been experienced.

  15. Great explanations Misha! Very helpful. :)

  16. Those were excellent conversions!

    I try to visualize the whole scene, including what the character's mannerisms would be. That seems to help "show"

  17. Michael I agree with you. But: "She was angry." = bad case of telling. Actions obviously have to be told.

    Shelly, you have an excellent point. I'm going to have to go hunting for them in my next round of revisions.

    True, Author, but if we put down what the character does in short hand, it's telling. ;-)

    Summer, I found that too. It just places the situation better than just acknowledging something happened.

    Myne I agree with you there.

    Hehehe Jennifer, that's a great strategy. ;-)

    Halli that sounds like a good strategy.

    Hehehehe Steph, I look for those too. Strangely, they tend to come up in telly sentences. So that's pretty convenient for me.

    Caitlin that's more or less how I do it too.

    Rebecca, I rather stayed conscious of my story lines. If I had to focus on technical aspects, I would have gotten lost. Curse of the pantser, I guess.

    Thanks Joyce! I'm pretty sure that your blog will be on the roll. I put every writer's blog up.

    Sarah that's a good point. Telling does make scenes go flat. Problem for me is that I basically rewrote in tell so that I could get the final plot down as I want it. So my scenes were all... equally flat.

    Rosalind that's a great idea. I might steal that one.

    Tony it's the same with me. That's why I changed my editing strategy a little so that my CP with an eye for this and voice can check it out before I go on.

    Thanks Amy. I'm glad if I could help.

    Thanks Julie! I really am going to have pay attention to mannerisms more. Thanks for the reminder!


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