Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Show Don't Tell

"Show don't tell" is that elusive factor that separates an okay writer from a good writer. Showing doesn't come natural for most. Writers envision their scene in their heads, thinking it translates to paper...but oftentimes it doesn't. Showing is also the more difficult path to choose. In my writing, I sometimes take the easy route, using generic words like "embarrassed or scared." Then one of my writing partners so kindly comments in the margin, "I know you can do better than this. I've seen you do better than this. You're selling yourself short." It's that kick in the butt I need to create beauty out of something glamorless.

Here's an example from this morning. I'd sent over my "audition scene" and she flagged the following sections:

Worry, fear, and excitement hit her all at once.


Embarrassment flooded through her body.

Most definitely telling, right? So I went back and expanded the scene to show instead of tell, and this is what I've come up with so far. (I italicized the sections where the above passages were located.

As Katie searched for the song, Quinn wiggled her feet into her ballet slippers. Four years had passed since she last danced. A tight ball formed in her stomach and her limbs grew numb. She wished she’d choreographed something or at least practiced. Who goes to an audition, not having danced in years, with zero preparation? Apparently, she did.

Or maybe deep inside, she was hoping she’d fail.

The music started and her fear dissipated from the first pointed toe as everything fell into place. Using the entire floor as her personal stage, Quinn performed pirouettes and jet├ęs with ease. The world melted away until it was just her and the music. No chaos. No worries. No stress. Just pure elation. She was uninhibited, boundless, like a firefly being released from a child’s hands, flying higher and higher until it sparkled in the sky like another star.

The minutes passed like seconds, and before Quinn knew it the song had ended. She bent over, her breath coming in short pants. As her heartbeat slowed, the adrenaline slowly worked its way out of her system. That. Was. Amazing. How could she have forgotten what it felt like to dance? Happy tears sprang to her eyes and she quickly wiped them away, not wanting Katie to see. Breathing in through her nose, she faced the girl for her judgment.

Katie applauded, nodding her head. “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. You’re hired.”

Quinn’s shoulders relaxed. It was over. She pulled her loose hair up, and fanned at the beads of sweat on her neck with her hand. “Thank you. I can’t believe I’ve waited this long.”

Katie raised her eyebrows.

“To dance again. My career kind of took me in another direction.”

“Well, I don’t know what your career is, but it’s obvious you enjoy doing this. You had a giant smile on your face the entire time.” She leaned in close and placed a cupped hand over her mouth. “Don’t look now...but you also have an admirer.”

Quinn glanced toward the doorway and locked eyes with Julian. Oh, my God, he’d seen her dance. She dropped her hair and turned away, wrapping her arms around herself in attempts to cover her skimpy leotard. She imagined herself an armadillo, curling into a little ball, her leathery armor shielding her underbelly. Peeking out of the corner of her eye again, he was gone, and she focused on slowing her breaths.


I hope this helps show you (no pun intended) the difference between show and tell. Telling uses words like happy, sad, tired, etc. Showing uses the character's actions or dialogue to relay these same emotions without outright saying it. And of course, there's the writers (raises hand) who do both because they're uncertain if their showing has done enough (i.e., She rubbed her eyes and yawned, her bed seducing her with its fluffy pillows and soft sheets. She was so tired.) Duh. You totally don't need that second sentence. Readers aren't stupid. So there you have it. Show don't tell. Got it? Now go search through your manuscript for the words happy, sad, worried, etc. and replace them with some descriptive actions!


  1. Bingo. Except, I'm good at spotting them, but then I leave them anyway because my list of body language cues and emotions only contains the words hands, sweat, frown, shake, smile and variations thereof. Being original is such hard work. Although seeing how you transformed the scene almost makes me think that it might be worth it :-).

  2. YAY! I love showing more than telling, but I've also discovered that sometimes it's just fine to say a word like embarrassed or scared because if I show those things every single time I say them my book would be 800,000 words long and the story (which should trump all in the end!) would be completely. There's a good balance to hit, I think. I love what you've done here, though. It's a beautiful example of why this "rule" works for you and is transforming your writing!

  3. I meant the story would be completely LOST. LOL. Where are my fingers today?

  4. Agreed, Michelle. :) Just like outlining, you have to find the sweet spot. I'm just glad I've finally figured it out. LOL That and how to use body movement instead of facial expressions all the time. :)