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

most common writing mistakes part 1 verbs that tell instead of show copy pinterestOne of the most common bits of life-sapping “telling” found in a story’s narrative is also one of the easiest for writers to overlook.

It’s also, fortunately, one of the easiest to correct.

How Telling Verbs Can Block Reader Participation

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 readers what Therese’s senses are picking up. How much better if the verbs were instead showing readers so they could experience the sensations with her?

Take another look:

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.

How Showing Verbs Can Enhance Dramatization

Every time you write that a character saw/smelled/heard/felt something, see if you can reword the sentence to show readers 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 produces powerful results.

Let’s rework Therese’s paragraph to allow readers 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.

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? 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your verbs doing in your most recent scene? Are they showing or telling? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. 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

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

  3. @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!

  4. 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

  5. Happy editing!

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

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

  8. My showing verbs have begun telling on me 🙂

  9. Naughty verbs. :p

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. Sandra deRive says:

    I agree with balance. I think readers want to be told a story, we grew up hearing stories told to us, and I feel that mixing the show and tell also helps to keep a story interesting. It keeps the story from becoming monotonous, by switching back and forth. It is good to realize and train yourself when you are telling or showing, which is what we have to learn as writers, but I like the idea of balancing it throughout the story. We just need to know when to tell and when to show, and that is what comes with reading it over and again, to spot the parts that need to be switched one way or the other.

  17. This is the best explanation and example of the difference between showing and telling that I have ever seen. I finally see it. I now I understand the difference between showing and telling. Thank you.

  18. thearcherofGod says:

    Maybe I am an old-manner reader, but I like more the first version of the scene where Therese is seeing the argument. I think a more general perspective, similar to the narrator’s one, sometimes can get the reader nearer to the character and makes him able to ‘rewrite’ the narrator’s words in his mind. But that is only my opinion. 🙂 I would ask you a thing: do you think it is possible to find a perfect middle way between omniscient POV and 3-person POV, to both ‘control’ the story like an omniscient narrator and even be able to give vitality to narration and description and make the characters believable and shining? Thank you so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Possible, yes, but tricky. It’s a balance we see in some stories. If I’m remembering correctly, Hemingway often used it.

  19. I’m sorry, but I like “She felt her chest tighten in commiseration with his lost profits” better than “The tangy odor of the mustard puddling on the sidewalk drifted across the street, and Therese’s chest tightened” The first version draws me in more by letting me in on *why* her chest tightened, as well as a little bit about what’s happening in the character’s head, instead just what’s happening visually. It’s also more concise and avoids potential reader confusion about why she had the reaction she did. but unfortunately, i feel like this type of opinion is not allowed by

  20. I’m sorry, but I like “She felt her chest tighten in commiseration with his lost profits” better than “The tangy odor of the mustard puddling on the sidewalk drifted across the street, and Therese’s chest tightened” The first version draws me in more by letting me in on *why* her chest tightened, as well as a little bit about what’s happening in the character’s head, instead just what’s happening visually. It’s also more concise and avoids potential reader confusion about why she had the reaction she did. but unfortunately, i feel like this type of opinion is not allowed by the industry.

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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