5 Ways To Know If You’re Showing Or Telling

Show don’t tell is a basic writing concept that applies to both non-fiction and fiction writers. It makes our writing so much more interesting – but it’s a hard concept to grasp when you’re starting out. Here’s 5 easy ways to know if you’re showing or telling.

Naming Emotions
man screamingHe was angry. She hated him. He waited anxiously. She paced with pent-up anger. This is telling. Naming emotions is a quick way for writers to tell the reader what’s going on. But it’s not very interesting to read. SHOW how they feel, and dive deeper than clenched fists. Watch the people around you, think about your own body language. What does someone who’s angry look like? How do they carry themselves? Does their voice change tone or pitch?

Emotions can have many layers. Anger especially isn’t a primary emotion, but is a reaction to another emotion generally. When my son was 3, I turned for just one minute to pick out some apples, and he was gone. I frantically searched up and down the produce department. I called out his name. Other shoppers turned to stare. How could I lose my son? What’s he wearing one asked me. When I finally found him, he held up a loaf of bread with a huge smile on his face. “I found the bread for you, Mommy.”

First thing I did was hug him, grateful to have found him safe and whole. Then I grabbed the bread from his hands and jammed it onto a nearby shelf not caring if it was smushed or not. Was I really upset with the bread? No. The anger was a reaction to being scared and a little embarrassed.

Dialogue Tags
He growled. She screamed. He bellowed. She begged. This is telling. Write dialogue that’s clear and succinct, and use action beats to SHOW the reader how to interpret what the character is saying – or not saying. Check out our post on the Power of Said.

Telling: “Get out,” she screamed. “I never want to see you again.”
Showing: “Get out.” She pointed a stiff finger toward the door, her body rigid. “I never want to see you again.”

Showing will mean extra words, but you’ll get better at writing tight and being concise.

Abstract Descriptions
She was good looking. The lake is beautiful. These, and other terms like these, are too abstract and only tell the reader about a scene or a person. This is a great opportunity for character development. Show the reader why the character finds something beautiful, let the reader see the world through their eyes. What makes the lake scene beautiful to them? Is it the tall birch trees reflected in the water just like at the cottage when she was a kid? Is it the morning mist and the knowledge that the fish will be biting, or the view of her family in the canoe? What is it about her that he finds good looking? Is she dressed immodestly? Does she remind him of his mother? Is it because she sacrifices her Saturday mornings to weed her grandmother’s gardens? Use the opportunity to give readers a glimpse inside the character’s mind, motivations and desires.

Weak Verbs
Choosing strong descriptive verbs over weak verbs is an easy way to pump life into your writing. He walked to the principal’s office. What does this show us about the character? Nothing – it tells the reader where he is and what he is doing. Walked is a functional verb, and there are times when this is appropriate. Sometimes you just walk to the door, pick up the phone, start the car… Enough said. But reexamine how you use these verbs. Choosing stronger verbs that do double duty and show the reader more about how the character feels, what they’re thinking, etc. are more economical and keep movement in your story. Skipped, marched, strolled, trudged – these are all going to give the reader more insight into the character than walked.

He marched to the principal’s office. The girls skipped down the hall holding hands and giggling. With his hands in his pockets, he avoided looking at anyone as he rushed to the principal’s office.

Author Intrusion

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.” If you’d been around when Andy was younger, you’d know he was hearing his father run him down again even though his old man had been dead for ten years.

Author intrusion is a POV problem, but it’s also telling. When you have to interrupt the action or conflict to tell the reader something, or to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ that’s author intrusion. In the days of Mark Twain and others, writing from an omniscient narrator POV was popular, but it’s not done anymore. When you find yourself doing this, stop. Use internal dialogue to show the reader what’s going on, or have the point of view character observe the change in Andy’s demeanor and body language. What if instead the scene went like this:

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Elaine held his hand and waited for him to look at her. “Hey, you’re not that little kid anymore. Your dad’s gone. You can do this.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “Yeah, maybe.”

You see how the second example gives the reader all the same information without the huge flashing neon lights from the author that says – see this! Make sure you get this. This is important. Isn’t the second example more interesting to read? Give your readers some credit. This is what critiques are for. If the reader doesn’t get it, then you go back and edit – but don’t jump into the story. Let your reader experience the story alongside your characters.

Do you have any more clues about recognizing if you’re showing or telling?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


23 comments on “5 Ways To Know If You’re Showing Or Telling

  1. This was great. I just need to stop and thank you guys for being a crucial part of my writing education. These go into a folder I keep for writing info after they’ve been ‘virtually’ dog-eared.

    Was that ‘showing’ enough?

  2. After reading many articles and books that said “show” don’t “tell”, I still had difficulty grasping the concept.
    But this morning’s post clearly “showed” me not to “tell”.
    A perfect post Lisa. Thank you

  3. Hi! I’m a voracious reader and I can’t believe how often popular authors (the ones who make the big bucks) do this! Its aggravating that since I now ‘trust’ them enough to just buy the book on sight that they break that trust by writing sloppy boring dialogue and description! Argh! In any case, I appreciate you educating the world on this subject–I took a course with NJ Lindquist at Redeemer College last fall (she’s doing another this fall!!) and she emphasized this over and over! It is now etched into my brain:) Highly recommend it!
    Mary Ann Benjamins

  4. Thanks Lisa. This is definitely helpful! Like Mary Ann above, I’m amazed at how many popular authors “tell” us things. I’m reading a book now where the author doesn’t always use “said.” Surprises me!

    Keep up with the great blogs!

  5. Mary Ann, it depends on what you’re reading. Literary fiction tends to be the exception for a lot of rules – but personally I think these should apply with that kind of writing also. For genre fiction especially, these are pretty hard and fast rules.
    NJ would be an awesome teacher.

  6. haha Well, when you start selling 100,000 copies of a book because your name’s on it, I guess you’re allowed to break a few rules. Writers trying to break in usually aren’t afforded that luxury.
    Know the rules and then break them – this should be another post. Sometimes writers break rules on purpose too.

  7. The real problem with showing and telling is that, like Lisa said above, you need to know when to break the “rule.” You can’t show everything. Sometimes you do need to “tell.” But not in the five areas above. In those places, you definitely do need to show.

  8. I can never get enough guidance on this topic. It is so important. I have purchased a lot of e-books that clearly tell and not show. It glares so bright I have to put it away and just delete it from the device. It is a hard part of the craft to perfect, but well worth it!

  9. This is such great advice. Love the very concrete examples too. Thanks for posting this! (I, uh, will get to revising now.) 🙂

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  12. Great article, especially the abstract descriptions, as that’s one that’s not often pointed out in articles like this. I just did a post on how adverbs can flag you’re tellling, but not for the weak verb reason, but for another [url=http://angelaquarles.com/2011/09/28/writing-newbie-tip-adverbs-can-also-indicate-youre-telling/]Writing Newbie Tip: Adverbs can also indicate you’re telling[/url]

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