Monday, April 6, 2009

The Art of 'Showing' Vs. 'Telling'

Show of hands--how many of you have received critiques (and/or rejections) stating that your manuscript felt plot-driven and not character-driven? That you were telling rather than showing? Now, how many of you don't know what that really means?

Thanks for the moment of self-reflection and honesty. It's okay; you can breathe again. Today I'm going to tackle the all-important dichotomy of 'Showing' versus 'Telling.' Bear with me, understanding this concept will revolutionize your writing and lead to stronger, more compelling manuscripts.

Let's first define what we are talking about with a simple example. Read the following sentence:

"Mmmm...pie," Rachel said hungrily.

Seems pretty straight-forward, huh? Yes and no. It does cut to the chase and tell the reader that Rachel is hungry, but it falls flat. In other words, it's rather boring and doesn't grab the reader and entice him to continue. Now consider this:

Rachel eyed the pie and zipped across the room to where it sat on the counter, tempting her with its sticky, sweet aroma.

A bit more exciting, right? There are a couple of things at work here. First, I took out the unnecessary dialogue (dialogue in itself is okay, as long as it is furthering the story, which the previous example was not). Second, I used interesting action verbs. Notice, I resisted the temptation to write 'immediately zipped,' because it would have been redundant ('zipped' implies quick movement). Third, I added detail. Now the reader knows it was the pie's aroma that enticed her to hunger for it. This version gives the reader a better sence of the main character. She yearns for the pie--lusts after it even--but she is withholding. Maybe Rachel's on a diet. Here is a way to show the readers she is on a diet without actually having to tell them she is. The revised sentence also helps the reader to visualize the scene. If you close your eyes, you can actually picture this happening (more so that the first draft).

Do you get it now? I'm beginning to see the lightbulb above your head. Let's take it a step further. In both versions, the same thing is happening (more or less)--the main character hungers after a pie--therefore, the subplot here is identical. It is the characterization that leaps of the page in the second example. This illustrates the connection between the show/tell dichotomy and the character-/plot-driven one. A novel that mostly tells will feel like a plot summary to a reader. But a story that shows action and details about the characters within scenes will come alive for the reader.

This is what agents and editors are looking for. The problem arises when we, as writers, assume we are doing this right, rather than take a reality check. Here's what you need to do: flip (or scroll) to a random page in your manuscript. Now look line by line. Are you showing or telling? Consider the following:
  • Count the number of -ly words on the page (in Word you can highlight the section and find for 'ly'). Could these adverbs be replaced with stronger action verbs? Are they redundant, as in the 'immediately zipped' example? Would your readers be able to gather the same information without that word (i.e., from another sentence)?
  • Is there dialogue that is unnecessary? Does each line of dialogue further the plot or add to a character in some way? Does the dialogue fall flat? Is there another way to express the scene using action verbs and no dialogue?
  • When introducing a new character, do you give a laundry list of character-traits (i.e., Rachel is bossy, mean, a know-it-all)? How can you show these traits throughout your novel without having to list them?
  • Are there places/opportunities to add quirky details about your characters (without telling)?
  • Are the scenes easy to visualize? How can you add detail and 'show' what's really happening in a way that comes alive for the reader?
Whew. Now you may think your done, but you're not. If you noticed a lot of 'telling' on your page and ended up rewording quite a bit, then I recommend an entire manuscript revision. Ouch, I know. But look at how much stronger that one page is and see what your novel can become. If your sample page excelled at 'showing' and you changed little to nothing, you're still not done. Pick another page at random. Repeat this several times and at different places within the text. If you are noticing the same quality of writing, give yourself a pat on the back. You're still not done. Tricked you, didn't I? Now take a really close look at your opening and closing chapters. These are the easiest places to make these kinds of mistakes--when you are setting up or wrapping up a novel. Don't feel forced to overly introduce or summarize details that could be incorporated at a different point in the manuscript. Still perfect? Then either you are lying or you are ready for submission.

Nope, just kidding. You've got one more thing to do. Gotcha again. Now you must look at your query with the same critical eye for 'showing' versus 'telling.' Agents want to read the voice of your manuscript in the query. After all that revising, why give them a query that summarizes your plot without 'showing' them your characters? Liven it up!

Here are some helpful resources to aid you on your way:

One of the best discussions on this issue can be found at QueryTracker. Several rules of thumb are given (with accompanying examples) and practice exercises are also included. Make sure to read their blurb at the end which mentions those times when 'telling' is appropriate.

Barbara Poelle wrote a great article entitled 'Traiting Up' about how to use quirks to create a deep, rich, and believable character. This is a MUST READ if you are receiving rejections from agents stating that your manuscript sounds plot-driven and not character-driven. Heck, this is a MUST READ for all writers.

The Fractured Keyboard details how to spot and avoid those pesky adverbs. She also goes into why they don't work and gives examples of how to rewrite without them.

Author Marsha Skrypuch gives her Five Word Rule for Dialogue, a great guide for cutting out unnecessary dialogue that might be slowing down your manuscript (and thereby committing the sin of telling, instead of showing). Note: not all dialogue is unnecessary--just the dialogue that does not further the plot or characterization of your cast.

This is a lot to learn, but once a writer masters this, it changes the way you write (and rewrite--which is just as important).

UPDATE (04/07/09): After creating this post, I started a new thread on the Children's Writers and Illustrators Message Board about 'Showing' versus 'Telling.' Several members of the site provided a great exchange on the topic. Check out this post's comment section to read some examples provided by Verla Kay, creator of CWIMB, and contributing member Harrietthespy.

UPDATE (04/09/09): Literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted an excellent article about why it is important to SHOW in your query and not TELL.

UPDATE (04/10/09): Writer Elle Scott over at Writing Advice for the Absolute Newbie describes when and how to use speech tags (i.e., "Mmmm...pie," Rachel said hungrily). Poor use of speech tags can equate to 'telling,' but when used appropriately (and sparingly) they can liven up a section of dialogue.

UPDATE (04/14/09): Blogger and aspiring author T. Anne (from White Platonic Dreams) summarized an article on '9 signs you're telling, not showing.' Examples are given for each symptom, as well as ways to switch the telling into showing.


Anonymous said...


Is this more in line with what you're thinking query wise? Sorry to highjack your post. :) I'm good with showing in a novel but obviously horrid at queries. I know that sounds paradoxical, but I guess that's what makes a paradox a paradox.

Anywho, I'd appreciate your feedback. Thanks for your kind input and honesty.

Carving waves San Diego style, making the grades, and hanging out with her BF Ford keep life sane for senior Grace Parker. Dancing around the sexual tension that built up over the summer requires effort, but it’s something Grace is willing to do. Falling for her BF Ford would be crazy. If she lost him, she’d lose everything. Unless, you count her unstable family comprised of erratic father and enabling mother.
So what’s a girl to do? Wanting to let loose a little tension in a light make out session at a bonfire leads to a promising start with popular surfer BJ. Grace strives to keep her cool and so does Ford. Her first big date with BJ ends when he becomes all hands and doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Where to go? Ford’s home.
After several weeks of evading BJ, and dodging Ford’s advances, Grace takes the plunge with Ford and advances their relationship to the next level – dating. In spite of everything, she hangs onto her shameful family secret at all costs, including their relationship. Ford chips away at her emotional wall as he works his way into her heart.
When Grace’s English teacher assigns “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” the essay questions challenge Grace’s current position on avoiding her own reality. Nafisis Azar, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran addresses how a select group of women in Iran avoid their own reality through literature. The irony of the assignment doesn’t escape her, making the assignment difficult to complete.
Challenged by the battle between her head and her heart, she finally let’s Ford into her life. Inspired by her assignment and Ford’s concerned family, Grace makes the agonizing decision to leave home.

~Lindsey S.

Niki Schoenfeldt said...

Great Article Sarah! And thanks for the link to my blog.

Sarah Garrigues said...

After creating this post, I started a new thread on the Children's Writers and Illustrators Message Board about 'Showing' versus 'Telling.' Several members of the site provided a great exchange on the topic. Verla Kay, the creator of the site, also joined in the discussion and provided example sentences of her own. She has given me permission to reproduce them here for your benefit. Enjoy!

Showing vs Telling is an important part of any story and when I was first writing for children, I had a very hard time understanding just what the difference was. Through my years of teaching writing for children, I created the following examples to help my students understand the difference between the two:

Telling how a character feels –

She felt angry.
He was worried.
She was nervous.

Showing how a character feels through words and actions –

She threw the truck on the ground and stomped on it. (She’s angry.)

He paced the floor until it seemed he’d wear holes in the carpet (He is worried.)

“I can’t do it,” she wailed, wringing her hands. “I’ll fall. I just know I’ll fall.” She trembled as she stared at the narrow log crossing the stream. (She’s nervous.)
" ~Verla Kay

Tabitha said...

Interesting article, and thanks for sharing.

I've got some articles on Showing Vs. Telling in a few places, if you'd like to check them out:

Rick Daley said...


Good info, I just put a special post on The Public Query Slushpile linking to it.

Sarah Garrigues said...

Another contributing member of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Message Board has given me permission to post her examples of 'showing' through dialogue. Thanks!

Your first example starts by saying the dialogue is unnecessary. That may confuse a new writer who sees the example out of context (i.e. a larger block of text that may give the same info). The answer is - it depends. When we talk about "show" don't "tell" almost always a new writer uses exposition to tell us what is going on with a character rather than action and dialogue. For instance "tell" in dialogue would be:

"What's the matter?" she asked.

The question mark shows us that she asked. So we have a "show" and a "tell" in the same line of dialogue. Or . . .

The fire raged in the hallway. Janie shouted for her twin brother and sister, Annie and Gerald, to follow her. She dropped to the floor and told them to stay low. She was scared but knew she couldn't show fear or the others wouldn't follow.

Could be:

"Fire!" Janie turned to find Anne and Gerald cowered in the closet.

"Come on! There's no time!" She nudged them from their hiding place, then crouched low to the floor. ""Follow me! Stay down and we'll have enough air to make it to the back door."

"I'm scared!" Annie said. "Aren't you scared!"

Beads of sweat poured down Janie's face. The salt and smoke stung her eyes as she gripped the twin's hands. "No, Annie. We'll be okay."

Likewise, even exposition can be a tell instead of a show. I used this example in a recent class:

“Sandy had been too tired to think of what lay ahead of her. She would have gotten up earlier, but she had been studying all night for the final with her best friend Janie who didn’t understand math any better than she did. Still, the farm chores needed to be done. The sun was starting to rise over the horizon. Its rays were streaming through the window. Sandy could hear a rooster who was crowing near the barn. There was no denying it. Morning had just arrived.”

Could be:

"Shut up, already!"

Sandy slammed her alarm to the floor, yanked the cord from the wall outlet and drew the covers over her head. Studying until midnight was stupid, especially with Janie whose sole contribution was to demonstrate the art of tattooing math formulas in the palm of her hand with a Sharpie. Today’s final counted for a third of their grade. Dropping below a C+ average meant permanent exile back to the farm.

Rays of sunlight pierced the thin blanket and assaulted Sandy’s closed eyelids. Outside, a rooster crowed relentlessly to reinforce the message – resistance was futile. Morning chores and an impossible test waited.

She groaned, swung her legs over the side of the bed and trudged to the bathroom.

"Ready for the test?" her mother asked.

"No," she sighed. "I'm doomed."

Casey said...

This is an awesome post Sarah! I'll check out the thread.

Sarah Garrigues said...

Thanks, Casey! I'm glad you found the post helpful. Be sure to check out the thread on CWIMB. It's been an interesting two days over there...lots of great dialogue (some of which I have posted here in the comments). What a great learning experience!

Tabitha said...

Hi Sarah! I posted this on the Blueboards thread, but I wasn't sure if you saw it so I'll repost here. :)

I am wondering about your initial example. You say:
Telling: "Mmmm...pie," Rachel said hungrily.
Showing: Rachel eyed the pie and zipped across the room to where it sat on the counter, tempting her with its sticky, sweet aroma.

I would actually argue that both examples are telling, and that the first shows us more than the second.

With the dialog, we are shown more of Rachel because we hear *how* she's reacting to the pie. It paints a clearer picture of the kind of person she is - she sounds like Homer Simpson, so maybe she's a fan. :) At the very least, she sounds more casual than someone who would say "That's a lovely pie. Smells delicious." And that shows us something about her.

The second example tells us *that* she's eyeing the pie, but not *how* she eyes it. It tells us that the pie is tempting her, but not how the temptation makes her feel. Is she annoyed because she's not allowed to eat it? Is she anticipating her first bite? We can't tell. The "Mmmm...pie" shows us that she's anticipating her first bite, which gives us more information.

The "said hungrily" part is, of course, telling. So, I actually think that this would be a stronger example of showing:

"Mmmm...pie." Rachel leaned over it, inhaling the cinnamon sweetness, the rising steam fogging up her glasses. Her stomach rumbled as she scooped out a slice, and apples oozed out the sides.

Here, we know what kind of pie it is, that it's fresh out of the oven, and that Rachel is hungry. "Eyeing," "zipping," and "tempting" don't paint a clear enough picture for me. Just my opinion. :)

Sarah Garrigues said...

Thanks for the extra insight, Tabitha, and for checking out the blog. Come back again!