Writing 101: Showing vs. Telling

I recently unearthed a short story I’d written in high school. It was a favorite, I remember, and one that my friends had actually been lining up to read after I’d finished and word got round that it was good. Digging it out from old papers was like the scene in Amélie when she discovers, quite by accident, an old tin box of toys, photographs, and trinkets hidden inside the wall: delighted, I forgot everything I was doing, blew off the dust, and sat down to examine the treasure.

Three sentences in I nearly died: I had already used five adverbs.

I tore through the pages, mortified, and sure enough all the way through it I had written lines such as “he said viciously,” “she said reassuringly,” and “he painfully added”. This, my friends, is another sad case of descriptive overdose, and an all-too-common breaking of what many call the first rule of writing: Show, Don’t Tell.

 “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

The good news is, showing is easy: all you have to do is replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs. This helps replace general, abstract words with more concrete ones, and it is the concrete that creates a lasting image in the mind of a reader. Let’s look at some examples. For extra emphasis print the lines out and circle or underline the nouns and verbs in each sentence. What helps show the best?

Telling: The cinnamon rolls looked and smelled divine.

Showing: The cinnamon rolls steamed as they came from the oven, filling the room with the aroma of brown sugar and butter.

Telling: “No snacking, Martin,” Nora sternly warned.

Showing: “Don’t even think about it,” said Nora, her eyes narrowing into talons.

Telling: Cautiously she left the kitchen. Then Martin was alone with the freshly-iced batch.

Showing: She backed out of the kitchen, eyes still pinned to him. Then it was just Martin and the plate of pastries, their icing glistening as it melted.

Telling: He was sorely tempted.

Showing: He approached, saliva dripping from his teeth.

Telling: He listened carefully. When he was sure that Nora was gone he quickly grabbed one and fled.

Showing: He strained his ears and looked over his shoulders. When he was certain  Nora was gone he seized one and bolted.

Simple, right? For practice, try one of the prompts below. Remember to focus on using nouns and verbs.

  1. Describe a character’s emotion without naming it. Ask someone to read it and see if he or she can tell you what it is.
  2. Describe your favorite dish or recipe.
  3. Find something you have written in the past and rewrite it without using any adjectives.

5 thoughts on “Writing 101: Showing vs. Telling

  1. Oooh, I get that feeling all the time when looking at my writing from about two years ago before I realized that fifteen adverbs in a paragraph is not a good thing. Some of that stuff can be agonizing to read.
    I liked your examples of telling vs. showing and the prompts are definitely constructive and got me thinking. The third one is a tricky challenge. Makes me think of that quote about the difference between the right word and the almost right word.
    If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to point out that this isn’t necessarily the case all the time. Just most of the time. Sometimes, when you need to plow through some information, such as a time lapse in which things happen or change but don’t actively affect the plot but would seem unrealistic if not mentioned, you can tell the information to get it out of the way. There are also some stories out there that are extremely effective and utilize a great deal of telling. For example, “Prue” by Alice Monroe, which is, for at least six paragraphs, a walk through the two main characters’ lives depicted almost entirely through telling, and only moves into showing when it zooms in on a scene. Basically, what I’m trying to get at is it’s not good to tell in a scene, but if the camera lens of the story is zoomed out quite a ways, you can get away with it, because sometimes, showing everything gets frustrating and tedious for a reader, especially if the information isn’t vital or interesting. It’s all about finding balance between the two.
    I enjoyed reading this. It’s very constructive and helpful advice.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Rhiannon! I absolutely agree– telling is more appropriate in a number of places, especially where summarizing is concerned. I realize that I didn’t spend much time on the “telling” half of the equation. A future post perhaps 🙂

      Thanks also for referring me to Alice Monroe’s “Prue”. I’ll be sure to look it up!

  2. Good examples, but the copy editor in me went “whoa! Her eyes did not narrow into talons. Talons are hand things. And eyes are eye…things.” And now we see why I drive my writing group crazy.

    • Haha, I love it! Right you are, all “things” considered. I stand by my mixing of hand-things and eye-things, however; if a person can “look daggers,” then talons for eyes isn’t terribly far off, and even if it is, I think that fresh, unexpected images can keep things interesting 🙂

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