Monday, April 14, 2014

How to SHOW your story instead of telling it

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

I'm guessing that every single fiction writer at some point in his or her journey has been told, "You're telling too much and you need to show instead." does that mean? Can you tell that a character smiled, or do you have to show it? (The corners of Piper's mouth raised until her mouth formed the shape of a crescent moon...) Can you say that a character poured herself a glass of milk, or do you have to show it? (Piper reached her hand to the door knob and pulled the cabinet door toward her. Then she selected a glass and placed it on the counter...)

It's confusing, right? Just to offer a bit of comfort, showing rather than telling is one of the last big concepts to click for most writers. (The other is using point of view correctly.) So if you're struggling with showing, and if you're consistently struggling with showing, you're far from alone.

Resist telling emotions.

When you hear industry professionals talk about showing rather than talking, predominately they're talking about emotions rather than action. 

"Piper poured herself a glass of milk" is a fine thing to say in a book. 

"Piper felt angry as she poured herself a glass of milk" is not.

I challenge you to run a search in your manuscript for the word felt because it's almost always used for telling something that you could be showing. Another red flag word is thought:

"Piper thought about Mariano and felt angry while she poured herself a glass of milk."

Why do we naturally tell instead of showing?

Well, for one thing, it's easier. It's how we handle stories that we tell our friends in real life ("I was feeling so bummed out, so I went to get ice cream...") so we're programmed to do it.

But I think the biggest reason is that we want the reader to be perfectly clear on why the character is doing everything they are. That's why we constantly have to fight our desire to explain everything our character is doing. 

I listened to an incredible class on this topic by Jeff Gerke where he said what you'll sacrifice in clarity, you'll make up for in reader interest. While we don't want our reader completely confused, we do want them to feel intrigued by what the character is doing. And part of that is not explaining every detail.

Think of your book as a movie or a stage play.

In the Jeff Gerke class I listened to (which I wish I could link to, but I listened to it from one of my conference CDs) his advice to know if you're telling or not is to ask yourself, "Could an audience see it if this were a movie or a play?" If not, you've likely crossed into telling.

Of course a novel is a different art form than screenplays, and there's definitely a need for internal monologue, so don't go ripping it all out of your manuscript. But do keep an eye out for when you're using internal monologue for sneaky telling. 

You'll notice that lots of classics are full of telling. Those were written for a different audience—an audience who hadn't been brought up on a steady diet of movies and TV shows. The modern reader is accustomed to having their stories shown to them, and while they'll have patience with Jane Austen, they likely won't extend the same patience to you.

Let's go back to Piper and her glass of milk. Put her on stage—how can we show that she's angry and thinking of Mariano while she pours the milk? She could be grinding her teeth. She could pour the milk with a bit too much gusto, and when it sloshes out of the glass she mutters, "Mariano," as if it's all his fault.

There are lots of ways to show it, and all of them are far more interesting than "Piper felt angry."

Is description telling?

Using the Jeff Gerke trick, no. Because it's something the audience can see. You're not telling, you're showing the audience where the character is. Much like decorating a stage.

Is dialogue ever telling?

YES. When your character is saying some solely for the benefit of the audience, you've crossed into telling. My personal pet peeve is dialogue that looks like this:

Guy: How long have we known each other, dear?
Gal: Why, ten years, of course.
Guy: And that's why I'm giving you this 10-carat diamond.

I hear versions of that way too often on shows and in books, minus the ridiculous size of the diamond. Character A should never tell Character B something that Character A knows Character B already knows. (I rewrote that sentence approximately a dozen times to try and make it more clear, and I'm not sure I achieved it! Don't let characters say things they know other characters know.) 

Sometimes writers work way too hard to inform the reader: "Well, Jim, we sure missed you last night at the game but I'm sure you had a lot of fun at your niece's concert."  You can still work in that information, but you can find a much more natural way to do it:

Guy: Hey, Jim. We missed you at the game last night.
Jim: I would've much rather been with you guys, trust me. A kindergarten concert isn't exactly my idea of a good time.
Guy: It's nice that you went. I'm sure your niece appreciated it.

Are action tags telling?

Can you say that a character laughed or a character smiled? Yes. If you can see it through a camera (or pick it up with a microphone) then it's showing. You don't need to get all fancy with character's mouths becoming crescent moons or anything.

Is it ever okay to tell?

Yes. And we'll discuss that next Monday!


  1. Thanks a lot for this post. I loved the character A/ character B thing you said. :) And the emotions part is definetely true. I can work on this in the second
    or third draft, not the first one, right? Thanks again.

    1. Yes, this is definitely a second or third draft item for me!

  2. Ah I loved this post Stephanie, thank you. Telling/Showing is really something I am struggling with a lot. Reading up on this is always a good thing for me, and will definitely look forward to the post of next week. Any chance you know of any good other articles/podcasts or anything on the subject?

  3. This is so incredibly helpful, Stephanie. Thanks!!

  4. Thanks for this post, Mrs. Morrill! It was very helpful!

  5. I'm reading Sense and Sensibility and Tom Sawyer at the moment, and it drives me nuts how much telling there is. And your totally right, if I or someone else I read, wrote like that, I would not let it slip.

    I also have a BAD problem with telling too though. So this post was very helpful.

  6. gah. this is perfect. its just what i needed! thank you so, so much!


  7. I always enjoy your posts and pin many of them on my Writer's toolbox board. But I had to comment on this one. Thanks for the camera tip, I'll be putting it to use.

  8. This is so helpful! I was confused about this. I'll have to look at my sentences like... He felt sweat beading on his forehead. :P

  9. This is so helpful! I honestly didn't think I had too big of a problem with telling before I read this but I think I'm a sneaky teller in some areas. The Character A and B thing will definitely help. I'm going to be /much/ more away of how I write. Thank you so much!

  10. This is extremely helpful, Stephanie! This is something I struggle with a lot. Thanks for the post!

  11. This is a problem I definitely have. The first two people who told me I didn't show enough and told too much got a blank stare. It's not that I didn't believe them, I just didn't know what they were talking about. I actually have a word document dedicated to random paragraphs where I try show an image, a scene, or a conversation telling as little as possible and showing as much.

    Characters saying things just so the reader knows? My personal pet peeve and yet, I'm sure I do it in my own books at times!

    Good post :)

  12. Whoa. This was so, so, SO helpful!!! Thank you, Stephanie. This is just what I needed! I've been working madly on my WIP trying to show and not tell, but goodness it's hard. You broke it down so perfectly. THANK YOU!

  13. I often imagine scenes as if they were part of an anime. XD I can see it all clearly in my head, the way a character is showing emotions in stead of telling, but for some reason I can rarely find words to describe it. It comes out awkward and terrible, and I just give up and use some telling. As much as I don't want to use telling, it honestly seems to sound better than the awkward showing I come up with. I'm not sure quite what's wrong with me...Sometimes showing works, other times it just seems to die on the page.

    1. You watch anime? So do I that's awesome! And yeah showing is often awkward for me too :P I suppose we gotta pay attention when we're reading and catch what other authors do.

    2. I haven't seen that much anime yet, but it's cool. :D Recently my sister turned into an anime devouring monster. When she discovers an anime that is awesome, we usually end up watching it together. :)
      Paying attention...That's something I meant to do, once upon a time. It seems I forgot. XP Well, I've got a pretty long to-read list so I guess I'll get started!

  14. I think I face a real problem when I have to show what my MC is feeling. If I'm showing what someone else is feeling through my MC's eyes, it's easy because I just write what my MC sees. But my MC can't see herself, she can only feel herself... argh I'm not able to put it properly. The thing is, I can't very well write 'My eyes glinted nastily', I can only write 'HIS/HER eyes glinted nastily and an ominous feeling came over me.' I can only write that sort of thing for OTHER characters.So with my MC I end up doing a lot of telling.

  15. This is a great article. I'm glad I'm not the only one that notices that the older masters get away with tons of telling. I'm pretty good at showing emotion instead of telling it, but my problem is that I retreat nearly completely into my POV character's head for that.

  16. The Russian PianistApril 16, 2014 at 3:03 PM

    Thank you so much for this post! I've consistently struggled with showing vs. telling, but didn't understand exactly what "showing" meant. Distinguishing between action and emotion was enlightening!

    Also, I've wondered why there was such a drastic shift from telling to showing in literature. How did the Charles Dickens style go obsolete? Movies & TV--that explains it! The tricky thing for me is that I primarily read the classics to help me understand my historical setting. The problem is, when I read a bunch of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, I not only pick up the cultural details but also their telling, description-heavy style. And you're right--I don't think readers would have patience with page-long descriptions of how secondary character look (shudder).

    I'm looking forward to next Monday's continuation along this theme!

    -The Russian Pianist

  17. This was so much help to me and look forward to your next post on this subject! Telling and not showing is really something I struggle with then writing.