QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, March 9, 2009

Showing vs. Telling

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most oft-repeated pieces of advice writers receive. But what exactly does that mean? And when is it better to tell than show?

Last week during Open Mic Monday, Lady Glamis asked, Can you think of instances where it is appropriate to "tell" instead of "show"? Yes, we can, and I'll share some of them toward the end of this post, but since a lot of writers struggle with showing vs. telling, first I want to tackle how to show rather than tell.

When you give someone the Rorschach inkblot test, you go through 12 cards with ambiguous inkblots — twice. The first time, you ask the person to tell you what she sees. The second time, you ask her to show you how she sees it, so you can see it just the way she does. Was it the texture of the inkblot that made her see what she did? The shading? The color? The shape?

When you show your readers what’s happening, you’re doing the same thing — helping them see your story just the way you do. And your goal is not to show them a grainy youtube clip that gives them vague impressions — you want to show them your story in big-screen high-def, complete with a killer 7.1 speaker sound system, tastes, and smells. You want them to be there.

Tip 1: Be a connoisseur.

For me, showing is a sensual experience. I close my eyes and imagine what I would smell, hear, taste, see, and feel in my characters’ situation. Then I do my best to capture the most important of those impressions as vividly — and uniquely — as possible. I want the scene to have immediacy for my reader. When writers tell, they are usually looking at the scene but not listening or touching or smelling or tasting. They’re not slowing down long enough to capture the most outstanding details or pick the most exciting verb.

Here’s a lifeless telling sentence: The bad guys suddenly shot out the tires on the good guys’ SUV.

Time to stop and ask questions about all five senses, using the most descriptive verbs you can find.

* What do your characters see? Does the SUV spin out of control, making the scenery whirl by as if the good guys were on a carousel? If your character is a racecar driver who’s lost control of a speeding car on multiple occasions, his impressions are going to be different from those of someone who just learned to drive.
* What do your characters feel? Does the SUV jolt to a halt? Does the SUV drop closer to the ground? Does the SUV slam into a curb? Do the airbags marshmallow out of the dash, crushing your characters into their seats?
* What do your characters smell and taste? Can they smell rubber burning as it’s dragged across the asphalt? Can they taste their own fear? What does that taste like?
* What do your characters hear? Having blown a tire, I can tell you that the explosion of one bursting is as loud and startling as gunfire. But what else do your characters hear? Other cars screeching to a halt around them?

If this all seems like a lot of work for one sentence, it is, but as you get used to asking questions like this, you’ll start to do it automatically, and the showing will come quicker and easier.

Here is how I rewrote the line for my story. Note two things. First, that there are almost no adjectives — both sentences are carried by strong verbs. Second, I didn’t go on and on about all the different details. This is happening fast, so I have to emphasize only the sensory information that is most important.

More gunfire, and both of the front tires burst, dropping the SUV onto its axle. Metal screamed against asphalt, and a shower of sparks hissed past my open door.
Tip 2: Use active verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs tell; verbs show. Strong verbs make your writing vivid and real.

Adjectives and adverbs don’t move the action forward. Nothing is happening with an adjective or adverb; it just sits there on the page and tries to look pretty. For example, if I tell you about an escalator that is tall and silver but standing still, there is absolutely no movement in the sentence. If, on the other hand, I tell you the escalator looms over my character, mocking her with its steely teeth, you have a whole different feel for the escalator. It’s doing things. Scary things.

It’s not very interesting if I tell you that Raven was a clutz. You have to make up the details for yourself. That’s not the case if I add a more information so you can see the scene for yourself: The bell rang, startling Raven, and she bumped her textbook and sent a sheaf of papers tumbling to the floor. She had to wait until her classmates had clambered over her to clean up the mess. Her face hot, she stuffed the pages into her bag, jammed her pen into her purse, and stood so fast she nearly knocked over the man who stood there.

Tip 3: Pick something unique to emphasize about your main characters.

This is going to sound harsh, but nobody cares if your main character has dark hair and hazel eyes. So do millions of other people. You need to pick one or two extraordinary characteristics and emphasize them well enough that your readers could pick your character out of a lineup.

Over time, personality becomes etched into the lines of the face and body, so try to emphasize a physical characteristic that reveals character. Maybe your heroine hunches her shoulders as if she’s fighting a strong wind; maybe her black hair is braided so tight it looks like a licorice stick. I find that when I exaggerate a characteristic, that can help. So rather than just saying your character has flowing black hair, you say her black hair gushes over her shoulders and eddies into the small of her back.

Example: The angular planes of his face turned the soft light into a study in contrasts, and in that context, what might have been a sensual mouth merely looked hard. His cheekbones were high, angry slashes, a sentiment echoed by the frown between his brows.
And rather than telling you that my hero is insouciant but intense and that my heroine finds him attractive, I can show you:

He sprawled against the far wall, the exposed flesh of his chest bronzed and glistening in the heat. A gold piece lay at the end of the chain around his neck.

Had she been forced to describe him without using licentious language, she would have said that the lines of his face were aristocratic. In the uneven light, his eyes appeared black, but their intensity, not their color, was what fascinated her.
Telling vs. Showing

In spite of the magic of showing, sometimes it’s better to tell. Here are a few of those times.
* During transitions. When you just need to get from one day to the next, don’t worry about the evening sunset, the darkness of night, and the morning mist. Just say something like “The next day…”
* When you’re summarizing something that happened during a transition. Let’s say your character had a fight with her boyfriend before she left for work in the morning, and you want to convey that she has an okay rest of the day. You can write something like, “She made it through class and the rest of the afternoon without incident” and let it go at that.
* When you’re talking about a minor character who isn’t important to the story.

Your Job

Go through every sentence of your manuscript and make sure three things are true:
1. Every single sentence and word furthers the story. It moves us forward. It shows us something crucial. This is why it’s important to just choose a few details, not overload the reader with every. single. one.
2. You have used vivid verbs, not just-sitting-there adjectives, to show your readers what is happening.
3. You have closed your eyes and thought about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches in each scene. That you have shown your reader enough of that sensory information that they are experiencing the scene the same way you are.

Need some practice?

Try rewriting one or more of these sentences as showing rather than telling in the comments section below. Have fun with it!

* She was furious.
* It was a beautiful day.
* He was stressed out.
* Her bedroom was girly.
* His car was a mess.
* It was a dark and stormy night.
Want some help?

Need some help with showing vs. telling in your manuscript?

We’ve created a forum over at RallyStorm.com called QTBlog Activities. Inside the forum is a board called Showing vs Telling. Post an excerpt from your own story for others to critique with regards to showing vs. telling; then, critique and help others with their excerpts!

If you’re not a RallyStorm member, no worries -- you can join for free! We look forward to seeing you over there!

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. Visitors will find not only articles about psychology tailored to their needs, but they can ask Dr. K their writing/psychology questions. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource.


Jenn Nixon said...

Great post. Very helpful!!

Marty said...

This is really excellent - great examples and intelligent information. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Not only was this helpful--it was also fun. Posts like this make me excited about writing and excited about re-reading what I wrote.

Enthusiasm is everything in this game!

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This was fantastic! It answered my question beyond what I was looking for. I can't thank you enough.

This is one of the best descriptions of showing vs. telling I've ever read. I must do a post on this soon, and will link back to your answer. Thank you!

Taire said...

This is a great post. I'd like to see another one about description carrying your character's voice (POV) when they are not speaking.

lotusgirl said...

Great post. This is such a wonderful way to illustrate it. I especially needed to hear this right now. It's what I'm working on.

Carolyn said...

Thank you all so much -- this was fun to write, and I guess that came through! ;-)

Taire, you mean build on how I talked about showing your character's experience of the world (ie his/her POV) through things besides dialogue, right? (Just making sure so I can address the right thing! I really like the suggestion.)

Stina said...

Wow! That was really helpful and concise too. Thanks!

Rachael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachael said...

Wow that was helpful! I also struggle with show vs tell, but I really think this helped. Let me give one of these sentences a try...

"She was furious."

Her eyes glistened with anger as she glared at his perfectly calm face. Hands tightening into clenched fists, she stared at him without blinking and, for a moment, he was sure she was going to hit him.

Anonymous said...

Great Post Caroyn - as always. I love all of the advice!!!