Monday, December 5, 2011

The Writing Craft: Show don't Tell

First a little news. I believe that I have long term bronchitis which will require a machine. I am a little better, but it doesn't take much for me to lose ground. Unfortunately, this is an awful year. No money for Christmas or doctors. I don't know what to do. Pray I guess, but it seems mine aren't answered. However, I do prefer to look on the positive side and while things are terrible, they must get better. Life is a circle. We all go through hard times and good times and hopefully grow as a person.

Last week we discussed Description. If you have missed the Writing Craft post go here.

Show don't Tell is the next step and an important one. What does Show don't Tell mean? I know writers who stumble on this phrase. So I will take a little time here with you all.

Basically, Show means Experience. You want your readers to experience the events, the description, the fears and hopes of your point of view character. You may have more than one point of view character, but while you are writing in the characters head, the reader needs to be immersed in that character so that all things come to life through them. When you Tell the events of the story you're outside your characters point of view as a third party observering the action. There is a place for this, but a very small one.


Tell: Robert went into the kitchen. Bread baked. Things were strewn all over. His wife wasn't there. Where did she go?

Show: Robert was drawn to the kitchen by the smell of bread baking. Nothing was better than hot bread and melted butter. His stomach roared as the kitchen door swung shut. Piles of dirty dishes overflowed in the sink. His wife's favorite cookbook was open on the table. A cup of coffee had chilled beside it. Where was she? He turned, anxiety replaced his hunger pains and the loud beeping of the kitchen timer told him the bread was done.

This is short but it shows the difference. Often as we write, it is to tell, then as we rework the piece we change our telling into showing. The seasoned writer may be skilled enough to do that the first time. This scene is not complete; we are missing the 5 senses. I have smell and sight right now.

In the telling, you may choose to make Robert irritated with his wife. Maybe she does this all the time. Maybe she just went to the bathroom. But I have chosen to make his wife's disappearance a mystery. All writers can take a mundane, ordinary life scenario and create mystery, suspense or humor and fill it with tension.

To Tell: There is a place for telling. When you are writing your manuscript and you have 80,000 - 120,000 words it is acceptable to do a little telling. Other wise your story could easily become 90,000 - 130,000 words. When do you know to tell? When it isn't important for the tension or action to show the scene. In other words, you want 95% showing and 5% telling no matter what.

In today's market we are being told to make our stories shorter all the time. While this is the publisher's response to rising cost, it should not be your response to a well crafted story. Your reputation is on the line.
I hope this is a help to all of you. If you need more specific help, I am offering online classes, just email me at

Alex J. Cavanaugh wants to know how he can add enough description the first time through.
Golden Eagle and Michael Di Gesu wanted to know about back story and information dump.  
Nas Dean wants to know about show don't tell.         

Still to come:
Riya wants to know how a writer decides on a genre since she reads in many different genres.        
Mike Rushhoeft suggested a list of words to avoid. Good idea Mike.

Let me know if there is something I can answer.


Jacqueline Howett said...

Thanks for all your writing tips. There were some good examples, and I shall be back to re-read some of them.

Sure hope you feel 100% better, very soon!

N. R. Williams said...

You're welcome and thank you Jacqueline.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That is something that is so difficult to figure out in the beginning. Almost as difficult as eliminating passive voice.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I definitely did better showing in my second book. Excellent examples, Nancy.

N. R. Williams said...

It really is Diane.

Experience and trial by error is often the best teachers Alex.

Thank you both for stopping by.

Romance Reader said...

Great examples, Nancy. Thanks. It really explains a lot.

The Golden Eagle said...

I love the example!

Thanks for another informative post on writing. :)

L'Aussie said...

This is great Nancy, but i'm more concerned with your health. Don't they have free doctors in America? For heaven's sake! Please get better!


L'Aussie said...

And i forgot to say I'm back for judging. Just letting you know I've put up a Vote Poll on RFWer so you can have your say this week!


Anonymous said...

Nice that you added his hunger turned to anxiety as the timer went off. You just set my heart racing a bit faster with that. Its lines like that that will reach out and grab the reader and pull them in, wanting to turn the next page.

N. R. Williams said...

Thank you everyone. I'm having a terrible day with the bronchitis so I don't think I can get to your blogs. Hopefully tomorrow.

My husband makes too much money for free anything and our insurance only covers a small portion of expenses other than regular office visits. I owe $1,300 plus for this year alone and can't pay it.

Donna Hole said...

Excellent examples. It is hard to know when to "tell" not show. I agree, there sometimes is a fine line.

Thanks Nancy :)


Madeleine said...

So sorry to hear that life is throwing stuff at you. I hope your prayers are answered soon.
I find the telling and showing concept interesting as men's Sci Fi and action novels seem to thrive on more telling than women's and Literary fiction, though the best ones have more show than tell, I admit. Great examples.
Medicinal hugs and prayers for you.

Southpaw said...

I'm so sorry to hear your still ill and that in fact you'll need a machine to get better. I'm sending warm thoughts and well wishes your way.

I really loved the example you gave.

N. R. Williams said...

Thank you Donna, Madeleine and Holly. I hope tomorrow or later today I can visit your blogs.

Nas Dean said...

Hi Nancy,

Hugs. I hope you get better soon.

This was an excellent example of Show vs Tell. I'm reading your example again and again.

N. R. Williams said...

Thanks Nas, what a nice compliment.