Monday, February 6, 2012

Showing VS. Telling

Today I want to touch on the familiar topic of  "showing vs. telling". I say familiar because so often in critiques this is the first topic to be addressed for new writers. Are you showing the action or just telling us about it and what's the difference? I could write a whole article on this, but instread, I'm going to give you a brief overview of how you can examine your work and see the difference.

When you are "telling", the writing is plain and straightforward, yet it often has difficulty involving the reader. An example of telling would be: Kathy was sad. This sentence tells what judgement needs to be made about Kathy, yet doesn't provide evidence to support that judgement. For example, how do we know that Kathy is sad? How is she behaving? What does she look like? Writing which "shows" generally incorporates vivid descriptive detail in order to help that reader evaluate the evidence to make the appropriate judgement. For example: Kathy cried all morning, while wringing her hands together. She sat still on the couch, unable to talk to me.

The following four items are things to avoid when you want to show and not tell:

1. Avoid -ly adverbs after said. ie: "He said happily." That's telling but not showing how he was happy.

2. Avoid forms of the verb "to be"- am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, et al.

3. Avoid starting with As or -ing.

4. Don't just "look" and "feel". They are not powerful and don't show much.

Remember, there are exceptions to every rule. My personal opinion is, a little of something flavors the recipie but a lot makes it unedible. The goal is to achieve good writing that shows your reader a picture of the action and moves the plot forward.

Todays Quote: "A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears." --- Gertrude Stein


  1. Nice tips, and I love your thought that "a little of something flavors the recipe but a lot makes it unedible." So many things in writing are all about balance.

  2. Laura, thanks! It's so important to remember balance. When a writer goes to extremes either way the result can be disasterous. Unless you are one of the fortunate few who can write everyone else under the table.

  3. Loretta is perplexed!

    As she re-reads that quote by Gertrude Stein, she impatiently shakes her head.
    "Hey, she's not a painter!" Loretta said indignantly.

    But then she read in that end-all-be-all of human knowledge, Wikipedia. And lo and behold, Gertrude Stein collected art... and liked Matisse.

    "Well, if she likes Matisse, she can't be all wrong!" said Loretta amusedly.

    So Loretta happily went on her way, breaking all the rules of proper writing etiquette... as usual.

  4. Loretta: I'm glad you had the courage to say what you feel. I've been mulling that quote over for about two weeks until it finally hit me; a writer needs to look at what he's writing about and a painter needs to listen to the sounds that he's creating in his art. That's just my interpretation and hopefully each will find their own.

    Now, on rules of writing. They are only guidelines, in my opinion and if you are creating something vivid and stunning, you are the one making the rules as you go. If we all played follow the leader all the time, there would be nothing new in art or literature. Laura called it balance and I agree with that. So, if you found a way to break the rules and make it sound great and in balance, then I applaud you!

  5. I remember reading one of Donald Maass's books where he used a particular author's book to express the difference between showing and telling. I'll never forget the showing version. It said: "The streets smelled of manure." Now THAT"S showing, and very simply, too!

  6. Nancy: What a vivid example! Description doesn't always have to be complicated now does it? Whew!