Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?

One of the most common bits of telling I run across is also one of the easiest to overlook. It’s also, fortunately, one of the easiest to correct. Let’s take a look at the following impromptu example and see if you can spot the unnecessary telling:

Therese stood on the corner of East and Maple. From her vantage point, she could see the argument developing between the owner of the upset hot-dog cart and the policeman who had just arrived on the scene. Even from across the street, she smelled the mustard on the sidewalk and heard the vendor shouting. She felt her chest tighten in commiseration with his lost profits.

Did you catch it? Practically every verb in this paragraph is telling the reader what Therese’s senses are picking up, instead of showing the reader so that he can experience the sensations with her. Every time you write that a character saw/smelled/heard/felt something, see if you can reword the sentence to show the reader just what it is the character is seeing/smelling/hearing/feeling. In most instances, the rewrite only requires a few word snips and maybe a little maneuvering of phrases. The difference is often subtle, but it can produce powerful results. Let’s rework Therese’s paragraph to allow the reader to participate in the scene:

Therese stood on the corner of East and Maple. Across the street, an argument blazed between the owner of the upset hot-dog cart and the policeman who had just arrived on the scene. “You see this? Are you seeing this?” the vendor screamed. “You think I can afford this? How am I going to buy tomorrow’s hot dogs if I can’t sell any today? What am I supposed to take home to my wife and kids tonight, huh? Tell me that, huh?” The tangy odor of the mustard puddling on the sidewalk drifted across the street, and Therese’s chest tightened. Poor guy.

Can you hear the hot dog vendor’s voice? Can you smell that mustard? Can you sense Therese’s commiseration? With the exception of the added dialogue, the only difference in the second paragraph is the shifted emphasis from Therese’s senses to the sensory stimuli themselves.
Don’t feel as if you have to delete every instance of a character feeling/smelling/seeing/etc., but keep your eyes open for places where you can effortlessly strengthen your scene by figuring out if your verbs are showing or telling.

Tell me your opinion: What are your verbs doing in your most recent scene? Are they showing or telling?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent advice. Mark Twain wrote that when we used words like horrible, terrifying, etc … we were asking the reader to do our work for us. Instead we should so write that the reader would feel horror or terror by the scene or object or person portrayed.

    Have a great holiday season, Roland

    • Amalia Zeichnerin says:

      I have another example for showing vs. telling in a different field: In live action role playing, when you want to portray e.g. magic, there are basically two ways of doing this: You can either tell your fellow players a magical effect (“You see a lightning flashing towards you!” ) or you show them the magical effect, by using some kind of technical gadget or other stuff.

      As you can imagine, telling magic is kind of lame whereas showing it can give others quite a thrill 😉

  2. I read that Mark Twain also said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed–bring her on and let her scream.” Showing vs telling is something I battle all the time, but I’m getting better at recognizing the difference 🙂 Thanks for a good reminder…

  3. I recently read a book called Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein, that spent time on this same topic. A light bulb went off in my mind.
    I like your post because not only did you point out the issue, but you also rewrote it to show one way the paragraph could be more effective.
    Good work. Thanks.

  4. @Roland: Twain, of course, had the blood of many an adjective on his hands.

    @Kenda: Showing vs. telling is an ongoing balancing act for all of us, particularly since, in actuality, *all* of writing is a form of telling. Some methods of telling are just more vibrant than others.

    @Life: I’m glad you found the example helpful. Now I’m off to find myself a hot dog!

  5. That was great – you showed exactly what so many struggle with in the beginning.

  6. Just being able to identify what constitutes telling allows us to make an educated decision about when to use it.

  7. Useful post. Well put.

    This is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to get their brains around. Either they’re so afraid of “telling” that they won’t call somebody a “policeman” but will describe his uniform and demeanor in excruciating detail, or they’ll offer this kind of pedestrian telling, thinking they’re being precise.

    Roland’s Mark Twain quote is great!

  8. “Not telling” is another of those frustrating so-called rules that can end up stunting our writing if we don’t realize that it’s a technique to be wielded for greater efficacy – nothing less, nothing more.

  9. I struggle with this issue. Thanks for the post and for the examples. I liked how you rewrote the second paragraph to make your point instead of just “telling” us what would work best. 🙂

  10. Gotta walk the walk, I guess! 😉

  11. I’ve gotten better recently of showing not telling , but this is still a major struggle for me.

    The one trick I’ve learned (and tell me what you think Katie), is to put the direct object as the subject of the sentence.

    Example:

    BAD: I smelled the strong scent of roasted coffee beans in the cafe.

    BETTER: The scent of roasted coffee beans enveloped my senses in the cafe. (I can’t think of a good verb other than “enveloped” but get the idea?)

    Good article. -sg

    • mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

      The rich aroma of roasted coffee, filled my nose with it’s intoxicating scent.

      How’s that?

      (I am in love with this blog!)

      • mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

        Or:

        The rich aroma of roasted coffee, tantalized my senses. I flared my nostrils and savored its rich with it’s intoxicating scent.

        This one might be, a bit to much? 😛

        • mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

          Sorry a typo:

          The rich aroma of roasted coffee, tantalized my senses. I flared my nostrils and savored its rich, intoxicating scent.

          • mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

            Ok two riches used just take out the second one. I wish this comment area had an edit option.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I can smell it already!

  12. Yep, excellent strategy – not just because it offers a more vibrant verb, but because it varies sentence structure as well.

  13. Thanks. It’s something I’ve worked on before, it just always seems to need more work 😉

    I did notice you said, ‘it’s “cone” of the easiest to correct.’

  14. Writing is always a work in progress, for all of us. We just keep chipping away, until the good habits become second nature.

  15. Thanks for this post. It’s something I struggle with, and need constant reminders.

  16. Someone told me once that we have to hear or read something twelve times before our brains really get it. So we all need a lot of reminders!

  17. Thanks for this reminder. I KNOW this, but I always forget it. I’m bookmarking this blog post so I can read it 12 times and force myself to remember it! 😀

  18. Well, I hope twelve reminders do the trick for you!

  19. This is VERY true, and I catch myself doing this sometimes. I’ve heard to refrain unless absolutely necessary in using the word “felt,” as it’s usually a Telling word.

  20. Unless, of course, it’s a noun! Nothing with “felt”; indeed, sometimes it’s the best word for the job. What’s important isn’t so much that we refrain from using it as we realize that when we do choose to use it, we realize it’s probably telling, instead of showing.

  21. This is one of those areas I find myself failing in over and over again. I finally realized that it’s because of habit.

    One of the reasons people encouraged me to write was that I was always making up stories. I taught Sunday School and told them there – told them to my children… told other story ideas to my family that I thought would make good plots for our TV shows, movies and so on.

    I was always “telling” them though. So I got in that habit. Now I need to break it. The problem is that when I get “in the zone” with lots of story ideas pouring from brain to keys, I tend to write telling sentences and then have a lot of editing to do – if I remember to spot them all.

  22. This is such a practical way to fix the telling and not showing problem.
    Thanks so much!

  23. I’ve heard “show don’t tell” so many times I want to scream. But you’ve explained it so that I understand it better than I ever have. And it seems easier to fix now. Thanks!

  24. @Lee: It’s important that we don’t over-think when in the zone. Don’t worry about showing so much that it impedes your creativity. So long as you’re correcting the problem in the second draft, that’s all that matters.

    @Eileen: The best solutions are almost always simple.

    @vv: Show, don’t tell can be an extremely frustrating rule – since technically all of writing is telling. I’ve often thought that “elaborate, don’t summarize” would be a better way of putting it.

  25. this is an AWESOME post, KM! And primarily b/c I think people learn better by seeing it “wrong” and then seeing it “corrected.” Great example.

    It’s also (I’m sure you know) an example of passive v. active verbs.

    Thanks for the tip! Merry Christmas to you~ :o) <3

  26. I got behind on reading your blog posts during NaNoWriMo…but reading this post was an excellant motivator to get me reading again.

  27. @LTM: I always find concrete examples helpful in my own studies, so I’m glad you all found these useful.

    @Galadriel: Hope you had fun and lots of success with NaNo!

  28. Thanks for showing the differences! I’m preparing to edit my novel draft and the example gave me the perfect idea of what to look for.

    Thanks for the fantastic advice,
    – Siddy

  29. Happy editing!

  30. The example was very well written to illustrate the concepts. I believe I suffer from this problem a lot,
    take care,

  31. Happily for all of us, it’s a very easy (and fun) problem to fix.

  32. My showing verbs have begun telling on me 🙂

  33. Naughty verbs. :p

  34. Good writers are guilty of this very problem all the time. Better writers are able too catch them and improve them before submissions or publication. I too am a guilty one and always appreciate the reminders. Thanks for the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I’m reading a bestselling book by a fantasy author. She’s an excellent writer, but she could have tightened up her narrative *so much* by following this guideline.

  35. I have recently joined a writing group where we’re writing 1 short story per month. While critiquing these stories, I come across exactly the problem you’ve mentioned. And then in a later read I can pinpoint the same issue in my work too. Thanks for this post – its really helpful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s an easy fix, fortunately. Once you know what to look for, all you have to do is switch around the focus of the sentences.

  36. Fantastic article! I’ve always tried to avoid ‘he smelt’ or ‘he saw,’ but this is a great description of WHY these need to be avoided. Your edited passage really does show how easy it is to make our stories more lifelike and engaging!

  37. Wow! This was EXTREMELY helpful! I tell too much in my writing and even liked the writing of the example you gave. But when I read the edited version that “shows” the reader what Therese is experiencing, I could definitely tell the difference. Thank you for this! I hope to be more cognizant of this and put it into practice next month.

  38. I just read your post on showing instead of telling. I have a content editor, and she has been finding waaaaaaaay too much telling, and very little showing in my novel. I am trying to fix that. But my character, Yeshua (a.k.a.Jesus,) is alone in many scenes, so I have the choice between putting the plot into the thoughts of Yeshua, or simply telling the story. I end up doing a little bit of both. Here is a short example:

    It was the next day, after school. There were no chores to do today. As Yeshua sat on the roof his thoughts turned from his stepfather back to Efah. He thought of the 16th Mishlei Shlomo. In verse 7 it said: When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. I do try to please the Lord. So why is Efah not at peace with me? he pondered. Perhaps the Lord wants me to make peace with Efah?
    The more he thought about it, the more he thought this would be the right course of action. I will have to find Efah alone, though. He will be home from school by now.
    Yeshua knew that Efah’s home was just south of Nazareth, near the border of Samaria. Yeshua and David had once gone to the border in hopes to see a Samaritan. Many awful stories had been told about them, and he and David hoped to see one. They both wondered if Samaritans looked different than they did. The never did see one, but on the journey back they saw Efah going into his house. They were both glad Efah didn’t see them.

    Is there any way I could change more of the telling to showing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve highlighted the “telling” verbs in your passage:

      Yeshua knew that Efah’s home was just south of Nazareth, near the border of Samaria. Yeshua and David had once gone to the border in hopes to see a Samaritan. Many awful stories had been told about them, and he and David hoped to see one. They both wondered if Samaritans looked different than they did. The never did see one, but on the journey back they saw Efah going into his house. They were both glad Efah didn’t see them.

      Look instead for ways to dramatize these things, so you don’t have tell readers what the character is experiencing.

  39. I have an extensive list of elimination words that I reference during proofreading (thought about, looked at, was, became, went, could see, etc.). Of course, sometimes I like to punctuate with brief sentences so as not to bog the story down, and sometimes for comedic effect (understatement). I do have another rule for myself on show vs tell: Many people read slower than I do. If it takes longer for me to read the sentence than it would take the scene to play out in real life, it’s time to chop off a few words. I do also try to consider how much word space I *need*– for instance sometimes describing a single moment in a fighting scene can take a while. Balance is key, but there are many ways to achieve that balance.

Trackbacks

  1. […] After all, writers are always being told to look beyond pedestrian verbs like “walked” for more specific and “showing” choices, such as “sauntered,” “limped,” and “marched.” The same must be true of “said,” […]

  2. […] Helping writers become authors : Most common writing mistake : Are your verbs showing or telling? […]

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