The Show Me State

 

Don't tell me, show me!

 

 

Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.

Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”

Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.

Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.

“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and  picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining.

Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.

Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.

If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought.

Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.

Advertisements

About suehealy

Multi award winning Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by the Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, the Heinrich Boll Association and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Her 2016 play ‘Brazen Strap’ ran at the King’s Head Theatre, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has also shown at the Hackney Attic and Etcetera Theatres in London. Sue’s nine radio dramas have broadcast on BBC Radio 4, WLRfm, KCLR96fm. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, she spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. Presently, she is London-based, researching a PhD on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

28 responses to “The Show Me State

  • trixycae

    I tend to struggle with the showing concept but you’re right about cutting out superflous adverbs and adjectives. When you can’t get away with wrapping it all up with one word, the text is far much interesting. I’m editing a novel at the moment and forcing myself to delete and rewrite chunks of it. Thanks for your advice.

  • Sandy Sue

    This is my pet “teaching moment” with beginning writers. And to show by using active instead of passive verbs.

  • redjim99

    Thanks for this, very useful examples.

    Jim

  • Nicole Marie

    Thank you – great examples!

    I always try to be aware of what I’m “showing” and “telling”, and sometimes I’ll just get out what it is I’m trying to say before going back and sticking in some details.

    I tend to “show” a little too much at times, dragging things out longer than they have to/should be.

    Great advice. 🙂

  • mesamendoza

    We learned this is creative writing a few weeks ago. Very effective.

  • Larkin Vonalt

    Actually, both are necessary. Read the “great writer” of your choice and you’ll find both “telling” and “showing” in action. Too much “showing” makes for very dense prose, and sometimes, less is more. Interesting exercise, though.

  • mindwarpfx

    First. Thank you for your post. AS a new writer who is trying to get better at it, this will be helpful to me and others. Thanks for your reading and looking around my blog as well. Hope to follow your blog as well.
    All the best!

  • Sara

    ‘Telling’ too much is getting to be a real bad habit of mine, and it’s particularly awful if you’re working on a script. Of course it also doesn’t help if ‘showing’ makes you too chatty either, like you said. Fine line to walk, but I guess it’s all made up for in the editing process if you lose your way. Thanks for the advice!

  • Tmso

    Excellent examples. I struggle with the whole tell vs show in the sense you suggest: when to do it and not. Thanks for the tip!

  • The Animation Station

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. I am a screenwriter, and when it comes to showing vs telling we always go with showing. Film is a visual medium, and in every screenwriting class, book or DVD I have come across they always drill into your head about showing over telling. A lot of the screenwriting material focuses on format and not so much on the emotional impact you can make by choosing your words wisely. A few years back I bought a book called “Writing for Emotional Impact” by Karl Iglesias. He is a screenwriting consultant and writer. That book has taught me so much about storytelling and driving the emotion of the characters in your scripts over plot. I think this goes for narrative writing as well. Character is what drives the story. Characters are what people remember in great writing. I love the post and I think you do a great job. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • c stuart hardwick

    I understand that many folks have trouble with the “showing”. I do not. For my current project, I have written out at least two entire chapters and at least three major sections of “showing”, complete with dialogue and so on, only to later replace the whole section with a single paragraph or line of explication.

    “Showing” draws the reader in, but the reader is only visiting the world. They don’t need, as I sometimes say, to know where you keep the toothpaste.

  • Ben

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I’ll be following yours now as well.

    I definitely agree that writers need to find a good balance between showing and telling, although I would offer this one caveat. I’m getting my PhD in Communication Studies, and one of the things I research is how vocal inflection can substantively change the meaning of a message. Inflection, however, is difficult to show. I think that there is a place for (sparing) use of telling in describing how a character said something, when it is meaningful for the story.

    • c stuart hardwick

      I agree, but this does not have to be done in the attribution. As with so many things, it is good to have a “bag of tricks” at hand.

      Which is more compelling?

      1.”I wouldn’t,” he said angrily.

      2. His brow furrowed and the finger drew tight against the trigger.
      “I wouldn’t.”

  • ruelgaviola

    Hi Sue, I’m new to your blog — great stuff here! Your advice re: when to show vs tell is right on the money. I primarily write non-fiction, but posts like this are very useful. I’m looking forward to going through your archives. Thanks for following my blog.

  • lenleatherwood

    Good advice, Sue. Thanks so much for the reminder.

  • simplyenjoy

    Thanks for following my blog! I look forward to reading more great writing tips in your posts. This was definitely useful.

  • Kyle

    really great tips and so well put across

  • cafegirlchronicles

    I love these examples. Just when I make the commitment to show not tell I fall into the trap of exposition. Thank you Sue for the reminder!

    Cat

  • Maria Caruso

    Her eyes brightened up, over a hot cup of coffee, she smiled, and her fingers reached the keyboard: “I must thank Sue Healy!” then she leaned back on the chair. “I had forgotten that…”

    Ciao and Grazie!
    – Maria

  • sfbell09

    A standard lesson which is regularly forgotten. Terrific examples. That final paragraph, just punched me in the gut. Gotta go work on a lot of revisions.

  • Kim-Lee P.

    Just what I need to read today. I just completed a semi-fiction story for teens and that was one of my biggest problems–telling too much and showing too little. I did get the problem fixed, but if I had read a blog post like this one sooner, it would have saved me a few months of editing. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Are you a writer? « Almost Out of Ink…

    […] from others already successful as writers. Many of them have blogs. I personally prefer to read Sue Healy’s blog (editing) and the Warrior Writer (structure.) Just go to the tag search and type in […]

  • laila Alive

    Thanks so much for these tips, and the examples – very helpful!

  • Show, don’t tell, for more effective writing « The ContentETC Blog

    […] writers are well aware of  this maxim, as Sue Healy shows in her blog on craft tips for […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: