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Critique: 8 Quick Tips for Show, Don’t Tell

show don't tellThe key to immersive story experiences is convincing readers they’re right there with characters. They’re smelling the ash in the air, tasting the rain, feeling the churning gut, seeing all the same colors, hearing all the same notes. When narrative writing accomplishes that level of verisimilitude, it has the ability to move readers beyond their comfy reading chairs, beyond even the movie projectors in their heads, and right into a deeply visceral experience.

When done well, we call this technique “show, don’t tell.” This is actually an umbrella term for hundreds of little tricks that all combine to create strong narrative writing. If you master show, don’t tell, you will have largely mastered narrative writing itself.

This is why show, don’t tell is such a popular, pervasive, and challenging topic for all writers. It’s usually one of the first techniques we stumble over when we get serious about our writing, and it’s one we continue to tweak with every book we write.

I’ve written about the topic before—both about the basics and about more advanced approaches. Today, however, I want to use our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses” to explore several specific ways you can knit showing into the fabric of your story.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the third in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Gary Myers for sharing the following excerpt from his historical novel Vaderland. Let’s take a look (the bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections):

The young woman deftly unclipped the limit chain and moved it aside, immediately regretting not being more careful1 as the metal sign suspended below it clanged loudly against the rail.2 Swiftly,3 she lifted the hems of her skirts, took the first step up the steep stairs, and spun around to reattach the chain. One hand on the rail, the other pulling her skirts aside so she could see the narrow steps, she rose4 quickly to the deck above.

Hurried along by a stiff and steady wind angling down from the North Sea, the frigid December air immediately buffeted her as she emerged onto the port side of the open Boat Deck.5 How foolish, she thought, not to have thought of that. To not have realized how sheltered the Promenade Deck below had been.6 Outside, of course, but, at least on the starboard side where she had started, protected by the main deck house from the full force of the icy wind that blew from the northwest. Barely checked by the low marshlands in the estuary of the River Scheldt in northern Belgium, and totally unimpeded for the last thousand feet as it swept across the river itself, it slammed into her slight figure just as forcefully as it did into the new and untested steel-plated hull of the twin screw steamer Vaderland.

She resisted the urge to wrap her arms about her and rub her shoulders to warm herself. It was painfully obvious that a crisply starched shirtwaist was unsuitable for these conditions; returning to her cabin to don the grey wool jacket and cape that matched her skirt would be the prudent course of action. But Liza Dodson could withstand the memory of cold and discomfort more readily than that of not having been up to the task. That was unacceptable, and as unthinkable to her as smiling sweetly and acting helpless of body and thoughtless of mind.

It wasn’t that she was unable or hadn’t learned her lessons. As a child she’d discovered that even a face described as “pleasant enough” and dull blond hair that hung limply around it would usually be sufficient to get her way if she smiled and cocked her head just so. By the time she’d escaped awkward teenage years, she’d discovered the same of a figure judged only “more than passable,” even with her midriff stayed, her back forced into a graceful arch and her posture thus corrected. Had she chosen to behave as expected, she was fully capable of employing both face and figure to the desired effect, as most would willingly do. But she was not most and would not—could not—tolerate behavior that indicated she was less than she was. And what she could not tolerate in herself she suffered poorly in others, men and women alike.7

Ignoring the wind and the cold, she set about her task8 and found it no challenge at all, or at least not what she’d expected. She’d thought it would be difficult to find the object of her quest amidst the clutter of the Boat Deck.

Not intended for access by the passengers, as the metal sign on the limit chain had politely but sternly informed and instructed, it was clearly designed with little thought toward easy navigation, rendering it unsuitable for casual foot traffic as well. The port row of lifeboats hung from their davits, looming over her and crowding her from the right, while to her left towered the bridge and the two tall black funnels with the broad white stripes indicating the ship belonged to the Red Star Line. On center-line with the funnels, she could make out the low skylights for the dining rooms and saloons, surrounded by an assortment of fan housings, pumps, winches and water tanks. Ducts, pipes and steel cables of all sizes crisscrossed the deck at her feet; more cables, stays for the funnels and masts, zigged and zagged through the air at a variety of angles in front of her. Trumpet-shaped vents of all sizes littered the landscape, their flared openings bent at right angles to cylindrical bases that disappeared into the deck.

The description in the final paragraph is an excellent example of showing. Through well-chosen details, we are allowed to see what the protagonist sees. The ship comes to life before our eyes.

The earlier paragraphs, on the other hand, provide us an opportunity to look at ways we can all strengthen the force of our narrative writing (especially in the beginning of a story) by avoiding several sneaky instances of telling.

8 Tips to Spot Telling and Strengthen Showing

One of the reasons show, don’t tell is so difficult to master is that it is first of all difficult to understand. What exactly is showing? Most of the time, authors in search of this elusive skill will rightfully start out striving to use strong action verbs and write vibrant descriptions (as Gary did in his final paragraph). But there’s more to show, don’t tell than just that. Today, I want to point out several examples that aren’t always at the top of show, don’t tell guideline lists, but which are vital to strong narrative writing.

1. Never Name an Emotion

In the first sentence, the unnamed POV character “immediately regret[s] not being more careful.” This is perhaps the sneakiest of all bits of telling—and also one of the most potentially damaging. If we do our jobs right as writers, we should never need to directly tell readers what our characters are feeling. Rather, their emotion—joy, sorrow, confusion, regret—should emanate from the powerful context we have created.

Initially, this one can be a head-scratcher. How else would you let readers know a character is experiencing regret? Sometimes, admittedly, there is no other way. But usually, if you take a moment to consider how someone would act—facial expressions, body language, physiological reactions, thoughts, language, etc.—in a specific situation, you can show readers the appropriate emotion. Perhaps the character immediately flinches, bites her lip, and looks around to see if anyone noticed.

2. Let Cause and Effect Work for You

One of the easiest ways to let showing emerge from your writing is to adhere to causal order. By letting events unfold chronologically, you are giving readers their best chance to experience the story with your characters.

Let’s take a look at the entirety of the excerpt’s opening sentence:

The young woman deftly unclipped the limit chain and moved it aside, immediately regretting not being more careful as the metal sign suspended below it clanged loudly against the rail.

Did you catch that the event described in the third part of the sentence (“the metal sign … clanged”) actually happens before the second part (her immediate regret)? This means readers experience the character’s regret before they have any idea what she’s regretting. Even when the disorientation lasts no more than a split second, it still jars readers.

Fortunately, the fix is as easy as organizing sentences to reflect proper cause and effect.

3. Avoid Adverbs

Stephen King famously told us:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Many writers buck this. Adverbs, after all, are perfectly good parts of speech! But there are good reasons for King’s hyperbolic frustration, one of the biggest being the reality that an over-reliance on adverbs often contributes to telling instead of showing.

In today’s excerpt, we can count twenty-two adverbs ending in “-ly.” All but two or three could be deleted to the narrative’s benefit. Although nothing beats a well-placed adverb, adverbs are too often a demand for readers to see the story in a certain way. Instead of telling readers the character “swiftly lifted” her skirt, it’s usually better to show her “snatching up” her skirts, or some more evocative (but less bossy) equivalent.

And that brings me to…

4. Choose Verbs for Maximum Impact

There is no single show, don’t tell rule more important than that of choosing strong verbs. As Kingsley Amis points out:

If you are using an adverb, you have got the verb wrong.

Multitudinous adverbs usually signify one of two problems:

  1. The verbs are weak.
  2. The verbs are strong, but you don’t trust them.

If we cut all the “-ly” adverbs from our excerpt, we’d see most of the verbs are strong enough to carry the narrative by themselves.

That said, we might also want to examine whether all the verb choices are strong enough to really show readers what they’re supposed to be seeing. For example, at the end of the first paragraph, we’re told the character “rose quickly” to the upper deck. This might be an appropriate verb if the character were floating upwards or riding an elevator or even just getting her to feet from a sitting position. Under the circumstances, however, the verb is not evocative enough to show readers what is actually happening. Just saying she “hurried up the stairs” or, even better (if appropriate), she “ran up the stairs two at a time,” presents a more accurate, and therefore more visual, picture.

5. Use Paragraph Breaks to Organize Information

In our last excerpt analysis, I talked about how writers can use paragraph breaks to organize information and to subtly indicate to readers what’s about to happen. This isn’t so much a specific rule of show, don’t tell, as it is a helpful aid for making sure readers are given the clearest path to experiencing every aspect of the story. When different types of information are grouped within the same paragraph, the reader’s experience can grow muddy.

For example, the excerpt’s second paragraph opens with a visceral bit of setting information (“a stiff and steady wind”), followed by the character’s internal reaction, followed by further setting details. This information would become more accessible if it were split into three separate paragraphs:

Paragraph #1: [Setting as an “actor” within the scene.]

Paragraph #2: [Character thoughts.]

Paragraph #3: [Setting description.]

6. Avoid Thought Tags (and Reconsider Direct Thoughts)

One of the best ways to unite your readers’ experience with your character’s is via your POV character’s inner thoughts. “Direct thoughts” are shared in present-tense, phrased similarly to out-loud dialogue. That’s what we see toward the beginning of the excerpt’s second paragraph:

How foolish, she thought.

Surprisingly, character thoughts are one of the trickier aspects of narrative. Framed inappropriately, they often feel intrusive (direct thoughts, in general, are much more intrusive than “indirect thoughts,” which require no special punctuation or attribution).

One of the easiest ways to trim “telling” from your character’s thoughts is to cut as many thought tags as possible. As long as it’s clear the sentences in question are the character’s thoughts, there’s no need to tell readers “she thought.”

7. Watch for Info Dumps

One of the most obvious “tells” is the info dump. Any time you find yourself sharing a paragraph’s worth of information, consider whether you might, in fact, be dumping it on your readers. This approach is especially tempting in your story’s opener, since it often feels like readers need certain chunks of information right away. Usually, though, they don’t.

The excerpt’s fourth paragraph tells us some important things about the protagonist. But note the key word: it tells us. This is the kind of paragraph I inevitably write in my own openers. It’s the kind of thing I need to get out of my system in the first draft. But with any luck, I find and delete it before the book gets out to readers. Why? Because there is no aspect of showing more important than characterization. Readers don’t want to be told who your characters are; they want to get to know them on their own terms.

Writers rarely need these info dumps as much as they think they do. Do we really need anything in the paragraph in question? Basically, it’s telling us the protagonist conforms to societal expectations but doesn’t really like them—and that’s exactly what we’ve already been shown via her tentative rule-breaking.

8. Keep the Scene Focused on Action via Character Goals

Here’s a rule of thumb: it’s much easier to show when a scene features moving parts. This is true not just of physical movement, such as the character sneaking above deck, but even more so of plot movement.

Can you pinpoint the moment in the excerpt when the story’s interest level picks up?

It’s the moment, in the fifth paragraph, when the narrative indicates the protagonist has a goal:

She set about her task.

It’s no coincidence that this is also the point where the excerpt’s descriptive showing becomes more evocative. Why? Because at this point the scene has finished its set-up and is ready to get down to business.

Not only is this a good example of why it’s best to start your scenes with the hook of your character’s goal, it’s also a great example of how show, don’t tell is integral to so many other “rules” of good writing.

If ever you find yourself struggling with too much telling in a scene, first make sure your character has a goal, then make sure the character is actively pursuing that goal. And vice versa—if ever you find you’re writing a flaccid scene that just won’t take off, consider whether maybe you’ve packed a lot of unnecessary telling in there somewhere, especially at the beginning.

***

Show, don’t tell is one of the most foundational aspects of good writing. It is the vehicle that allows readers to cruise through your story, enjoying all the sights along the way. Without this important skill, you will have difficulty convincing readers to engage with what might otherwise be excellent characters and strong story structure. With it, though, many other important writing skills—everything from voice, pacing, description, characterization, and even scene structure—fall into place!

My thanks to Gary for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find further excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your biggest breakthrough with show, don’t tell? Tell me in the comments!

[Sorry, no podcast this week. I’ve got a bad cold and was too hoarse to record.]

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Rhonda K. Gatlin says

    I have been struggling with the show don’t tell in a different way. As a children’s author I have to use kid language and I am finding this harder to show. Ex: Aggie and Roger were sleeping soundly in their beds when a soft melody woke Aggie. She listened for a few minutes, and crawled out of bed. She tiptoed to the door and looked out into the hall. The music was coming from the piano! Aggie saw a faint green glow sitting on the piano bench. She rubbed her eyes and looked again, but the music had stopped and the green glow had disappeared. She rushed back to her bed and crawled under the covers, “I must be dreaming,” she said as she fell back to sleep.

    Would you please give me some pointers. I’d appreciate any help to show more than tell.
    Rhonda K. Gatlin
    I don’t ave an URL at this time

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a lot of telling in the paragraph you’ve shared. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially when writing for a very young audience. However, there’s no real difference in “showing” for kids and “showing” for adults (save perhaps complexity of language). All the same principles I outline in this post would also apply to kidlit.

      • Rhonda K. Gatlin says

        Please show me which of my sentences are showing and which are telling. I am still having trouble which is which. I’d appreciate it

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          In this instance, the verbs “were sleeping,” “woke,” “listened,” “looked out, “was coming,” and “saw” are all telling.

          “Woke,” for example, could be replaced by “Aggie blinked her eyes.”

          “Listened,” “looked,” and “saw” could all be deleted in favor of simply sharing with readers, through Aggie’s ears and eyes, what she’s experiencing. See this post.

          However, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The rhythm is nice and it reads well. You see this style especially in stories for younger children–picture books and early readers–primarily because it shortens the story compared to lengthier dramatizations.

  2. SO helpful; thanks! My question: is an opening that sets the scene (I’m thinking particularly of East of Eden) an info dump? I’ve used that kind of set-up in my writing, but (since I’m not Steinbeck) I wonder if it turns readers away.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Basically, the answer is what you’ve already said: it depends how well it’s done. Usually, it’s not the safest route to hooking a reader. But when done brilliantly, it’s, well, brilliant. 🙂

  3. Excellent post! Showing vs. telling was one of the areas I struggled with early on, for a multitude of reasons. and I’m sure it had to do with loving older epic fantasies and the early info dumps common in those. I’m not sure if it’s just something you grow out of or if it’s just the nature of the times, but these days I get bored with that level of detail all at once.

    #2 was a problem of mine until I picked up Dwight Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer” and read his chapter devoted to properly framing actions and reactions. That’s an eye-opening book, for that and for his breakdown of scenes and sequels.

    For #3 and #4, I do my best to limit use of adverbs and pick and choose my verbs, but I often end up saving this for my second or third round of edits. That’s when I try to trim down my adverbs, overuse of certain phrases or words or sentence structures, and so forth.

    #7 used to be a big problem, probably because of my love for older epic fantasies and the info dumps common in those, especially early on in a manuscript. I’m not sure if it’s just something you grow out of or if it’s the nature of the times, but these days I get bored with that level of detail all at once. I find it’s better to sprinkle bits of worldbuilding into a story for a sentence or two, and then move on to the action. If it’s vitally important and can’t be brought up in dialogue, it better not go on for more than a paragraph or it’s getting pared down in an edit.

  4. My biggest help for show, don’t tell, came from isolating character perspective. When one character is doing the action and observation, other elements can be expressed through them alone.

  5. JOHN G CRYAR says

    As usual Katie, you are spot on. For the past two years I have learned volumes of knowledge and how-to info from your post. Please keep it up, and thank you for sharing.
    Happy trails, John

  6. Rosabelle says

    Hey, K.M.! I’m new to commenting on here (I’ve been reading it for a while), and I just wanted to say that your blog is SO HELPFUL. It’s been really useful for me while I’m in the process of planning/outlining my first book. I have a few problems though . . .

    So, first off, my book isn’t like an “action” story or an “adventure” story. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl and her friends, and it’s more about friendships and stuff. The storyline is very important to me, and it’s based off of my own life experiences. I really like what I have so far, but I feel like it’s too boring. Like no one will want to read a book that isn’t about dragons, or fighting, or being lost somewhere, or something interesting like that. I mean, it’s not a boring story at all, but, I’m having trouble finding the theme and main goal for my protagonist. It’s not like she’s actually trying to accomplish something, like winning a race or something like that, but, she does have goals.

    Let me explain . . .

    It’s about fourteen-year-old Erin Blaire, my protagonist. Erin’s best friend, Adriana, starts spending a lot of time with the new girl, Sienna, and they become really close. Erin and Adriana are practically opposites. Erin is quiet, kind of shy, introverted, and enjoys reading. While Adriana is funny, loud, outgoing, extroverted, and enjoys playing musical instruments and acting. Sienna is a lot like Adriana, and they become very close friends and enjoy doing everything together. Erin is very hurt and jealous, although she doesn’t tell anyone. When she tries to spend time with Adriana again, Adriana insists on Sienna coming along, and Erin doesn’t want her to. When Miranda moves in next door, she’s really quiet. She doesn’t talk very much, she’s really shy, and she’s hurting inside. When Miranda was about six or seven, her parents were in a very bad car accident (she was in the car with them, and she remembers the whole thing). Both her parents died, and she was adopted (she’s an orphan now) by a nice couple with no other children. Miranda remembers the accident, and she can’t get it out of her head. She thinks about it every day, and she can’t stop. After the accident, Miranda closed up, stopped being herself, and stopped doing what she loves. She doesn’t want it to be this way, but she’s not sure what to do. She feels like she’ll never be happy again . . . until she meets Erin. Erin is sweet and kind, and makes Miranda feel like she’s worth something. But when Adriana sees how Erin and Miranda became such fast friends, she becomes jealous too (Adriana also doesn’t really like Miranda, because she feels like she’s stealing her best friend). Adriana never realized that what’s happening with Erin and Miranda is what happened with her and Sienna.

    Miranda feels like she has to change herself for other people to like her, like they won’t want to be her friend if they find out what happened. So she hides it all from them. She eventually learns that you need to be yourself, and you shouldn’t change who you are ‘s just so people will like you.

    Erin feels like she can’t make mistakes because she’ll let people down (especially her parents), so she’s very self conscious. Her father is the pastor of a church, and she feels like she has to be the “perfect pastor’s daughter” that everyone expects her to be. She eventually learns that it’s okay to make mistakes, because you learn from them.

    There are a lot of friendship problems and stuff like that. I’m not sure if you would say my protagonist’s main goals would be getting her best friend back and helping Miranda (she also wants to make her parents proud, and she’s afraid to disappoint to people). Eventually, at the end of the story, Miranda tells Erin about the accident, how she feels, and stuff like that, and they all become friends.

    But I’m not sure if I need to add something more. Is it bad if the protagonist doesn’t exactly have a specific goal until the Inciting Event that happens a little bit into the story? I mean, she’s a fourteen-year-old girl, it’s not like she’s trying to do something big like saving the world or something crazy. I’m just worried that I need to add some sort of big ACTUAL goal that she has at the beginning of the story, but I don’t even know what that would be! So I’m sort of stuck.

    I’m not 100% sure what my theme would be, and I’m kind of worried about that. I think that I really need to figure out what my theme is and what my protagonist’s goal is before I can outline any further. I guess you might be able to say that the theme is about: “being yourself, it’s okay to make mistakes, and you don’t have to change yourself for others to like you”, but I’m not sure. I really need help. I don’t know what to do, and I thought maybe you could help me. Any advice will be VERY much appreciated!

    Thanks, and God Bless!
    ~♡Rosabelle♡~

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Goals don’t always have to be big and world-changing. Sometimes they’re just as simple as “become friends” or “stay friends.” Characters usually won’t start out the book with their plot goals already in their heads. But they always start out with at least an embryonic desire for something. If you haven’t yet read my series on character arcs, I recommend starting there.

    • I think you have a good premise for your story. Sometimes theme will come to you during the planning stage but I think it’s better if it doesn’t. Sometimes we might have a tendency to get a bit preachy if we know what the theme is up front. Keep working on it. This girl has goals. Your job is to believe in them, get to know your characters, and let them tell the story. And please try to cut down on saying “stuff like that”.

  7. Ivy Sendler says

    This post is very useful, because I aim for an immersive writing style.

  8. Great post! I love your site and it’s been helping my writing in school (the class I told you about)! Have a great weekend!

  9. Figuring out how best to “show, don’t tell” has been a problem for me. Thank you so much for your great explanations. I’m a huge fan of yours!

  10. Sophia Ellen says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I struggle with this and this has helped ALOT!

  11. The tendency to tell comes from, I believe, watching our characters and reporting what we see. If we are speaking from a character’s point of view, we need to get ourselves into the character much as an actor gets into character. A trick I discovered to make this easier is to jump into first person when describing the action. Then, you can rewrite it into third person.

    I made my final draft of When the Wood Is Dry a much closer third POV by adding a lot of italicized first person inner thoughts and feelings then converting much of them to third person. I left some as italicized first person for emphasis. If you switch too much, it jars the reader out of the narrative, but there are times when jarring is appropriate.

    It’s a bit of a crutch, but actors always have the advantage of speaking of themselves as “I” and “me” when in character. Writer’s can do the same and really internalize the character’s perspective. The character’s goal will also be harder to miss if you imagine it as your goal. And it should help with character voice, as well.

    Also, remember that you likely have five senses and so do most readers. So, if you are really in the scene, you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste to various degrees. Some characters even have an additional spider-sense. Especially in revising, look for each sense being described whenever possible. Again, it is easiest to imagine these in the first person. And, you can be as ungrammatical as all get-out in an early draft that no one need see. The final product is what matters.

  12. Byron Smith says

    One of your best posts ever. Thanks for the great example and the good tips. Thank you, as well, to brave Gary for sharing!

  13. Ines Burrows says

    Great post! I’ve found all of your articles to be so helpful– thanks for writing them.

    I wonder if anyone else gets impatient when writers never, ever name an emotion, though. For example, I just finished a really well-reviewed YA novel, and while I enjoyed it, I got so tired of hearing about the main character’s stomach flipping and her heart pounding– I would have found it so refreshing if once in a while she just said, “I was really nervous.” Perhaps the author over-used the stomach- and heart-related descriptors, but it was transparent that she was avoiding telling and insisting on showing, even when the showing was unnatural and cumbersome.

  14. Thanks for the post. I have found that I am having less of a problem with “show don’t tell” with my current WIP. This story has been swirling in my head for a long time. When I started writing it was like releasing a dam, it just flowed out. It also doesn’t hurt that I have been in writing classes for awhile and the principle has been beaten into my head (in a nice way…). I like the concept of using real life examples, it helps to be able to see the results of what you are telling us. Hmmm.
    Like “show, don’t tell”.

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