This week let’s look at something that has been a huge factor in my own writing experiences and I’m sure it’s something the rest of you have at least heard of.

Show versus tell.

Some of you are thinking “What’s that?” right? Let me give you an example of each and then I will explain them.

He boiled water.

Shawn filled the pot from his faucet and placed it on the stove top, lighting the fire beneath. He watched the bubbles dance, before adding in the noodles.

So which is show and which is tell? Anybody?

The first one tells us what is happening. It’s a secondhand report, with no specific character or setting. It’s general and very boring. Leaves a lot to be desired, huh?

The second one shows what is happening. It adds action to the scene, and gives a specific character and setting, making it an immediate scene. Instead of simply “boiling water” he’s filling the pot, placing it on the stove, lighting the stove, and watching the water boil. How I described the bubbles also makes the visual come alive with more action.

Here is another example:

She blushed. tell

Sally’s cheeks bled crimson as the heat filled her face. Matt winked at her. She scuffed her foot and the color deepened. show

Again the second one adds action to the scene. That my fellow writers is the key behind showing.

Both have the same emotion behind them – embarrassment. But the second one shows her blushing and scuffing her feet. It adds action to the scene. The first one only tells us what is taking place. See the difference?

Okay now if you are still confused, here is one directly from Stein On Writing:

He took a walk. tells.

He walked as if against an unforeseen wind, hoping that someone stop him. shows, because it gives the reader a sense of what the character wants.

Again the italicized example was a direct one quoted from Stein On writing.

I’m telling you straight up, there is no “secret formula” to mastering show vs tell. As the author, you need to use a combination of each in order to keep the prose {writing} fresh and keep it engaging. Too much telling makes for a very boring read. Same for too much showing. You have to find the combination that works best for you and your style of writing.

Bored readers most likely won’t buy anymore of your books, which equals lost sales, and lost contracts. Ah you get the point.

When writing the bottom line always has to be:

“What do my readers want or expect to see?”

As authors it is our job to entertain the readers. That means giving them a story that feels original. As authors we need to be able to predict how our readers will react and then surprise them, instead of giving them what they expect will happen. But, that’s for another post later down the road.

Back to the topic at hand. Practice with this and see what you can come up with. Maybe take a week off your current writing project. Then take one scene, be it one you quickly make up, or one that is really be a pain in the neck. Take your scene and practice showing the actions and then tell to describe the scenery. You’ll be surprised how well the writing will improve.

As for me, I’m waiting for another book that was suggested to me by a crit partner. It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. I can’t wait to get my hands on it! I’ll be spending the weekend reading it and read a book or two just for fun.

All work and no playtime makes for a bored writer, and bored writers simply can’t produce their best work. Seriously, if you try to force it, your writing will come out terrible. Trust me. The age old adage “been there, done that” applies here. It will show in the quality of your writing. So when you find things aren’t taking shape like they need to, you need to take a break.

What are some of the way you like to show rather than tell? What are some of the moments where you feel telling is better than showing? Feel free to respond in your comments below. Come on. Don’t be shy. You know you want to. XD

Reference Material: Stein On Writing By Sol Stein.

P.S. This article appears in a writers and editors collaboration here:


About kittyb78

Catrina Barton is a licensed Kung-Fu Instructor of the Black Dragon style, and draws on that experience to make her fight scenes both realistic and action packed. She enjoys being surrounded by the stark beauty of mother nature. Whether it's a moon-lit starry sky, or a picnic by a peaceful waterfall cascading from the mountain side. Growing up no matter where she was physically, she always had at least one book in her hands and spent every free moment lost in a book. It's only natural that as she grew up, her passion for reading grew into an even stronger passion for writing, especially Young Adult Paranormal Romances. She is a proud member of many writing and marketing groups, and an active participant at Critique Circle and several other crit groups. Favorite personal quote: "An author cannot grow without both constructive criticism and encouragement."

2 responses »

  1. […] Barton presents Show Vs Tell posted at kittyb78, saying, “Show Vs Tell is one the aspects we writers are told about the […]

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