Rule of Writing
Show, Don't Tell
Show, Don't Tell. Yeah, that sounds easy, but what,
exactly, does show mean?
Let's look at an example: Carey
ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store
he met a girl, and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her, but she
blew him off. Then he went home.
Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay -- so this
example is really exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing
and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, most
especially dialogue and action. Consider:
Carey studied the frozen dinners. He'd had turkey and
dressing for the last four days, so Salisbury steak would be good for a
change. But did he want the Big Man's or just the regular?
A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell
of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out
of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he'd ever
seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and
smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head.
Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that
made his heart stop.
"Hi," she said, her voice rich and melodious.
Carey's mouth didn't work. He tried to return her
greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his
face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon
So now you have the idea. We need details. We need to
know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine,
feel the cashmere. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our
We also get into the "show, don't tell" problem in less
apparent ways. For example, in description. Mary was a pretty girl,
with blue eyes and blond hair. That is telling. Consider: Mary's
blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step.
That is showing.
Instead of saying Molly is a wonderful person,
say Molly is always there when anyone needs her.
She's the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first
to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to
offer a hug to anyone -- man, woman or child -- at anytime.
Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let
us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his
head as he strokes the piano keys:
Consummation of the soul. That's what Sam called the
gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense
it begged to be satisfied, pleaded to be released, and he was helpless to
resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own,
titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and
Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the
crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded,
everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.
Instead of saying Marci is a spoiled child, let us hear
that whine. Let us -- never mind. Just offer her some cheese to go with
her whine and forget it. I really don't want to hear it.
Dialogue is another area where we have the opportunity
to show or to tell. "I love you," she crooned. "I love you, too," he
sputtered. And I cringe. First, using creative dialogue tags (crooned,
sputtered) is one of my pet peeves, and the topic of a tips page. Second,
it is cheap. It is telling, not showing. Let the power of your dialogue
and the accompanying action show your reader the tone of voice and
the emotion, don't tell them. Consider: "I
love you," she said, her voice smooth as her fingers massaged his Rolex.
"Love you, too," he said. His glassy eyes roved over her naked body, his
mouth too wet and limp to form words properly.
You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a
talented musician or a spoiled child. We won't believe you. You must show
us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in
real time, to act out, to let us feel. The difference will amaze you.
(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes
(such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the
url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in
conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt
for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.
Opinion, by Bruce Cook
This review compares two books. One
book demonstrates integrity while the other just talks about it.
We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates (Oprah’s
Book Club Selection)
This book chronicles events in a
family’s tragic decline from civic prominence and respectability. In many
ways, it reflects problems suffered by families where success leads
to a departure from traditional values, and inevitably a fall.
The story is painful, filling the
reader with anxiety heightened by the author’s skillful use of
forewarnings. If integrity is the issue, the reader comes away with sharp
contrasts among well defined characters.
One cannot read this story without
reflecting upon one’s own integrity, family history, and goals. The
story’s family reunion poignantly highlights conflict.. And, overall, the
book creates a reading experience which can only help a reader feel more
committed to decency and integrity.
2. Protect and Defend, by
Richard North Patterson (Random House)
This book stands in stark contrast to Oates’ work. In many ways it
suggests that literature may follow the path of popular journalism: away
from reflecting social reality and toward management of social reality.
If you like campaign signs like “Vote
for Wilson” or “Re-elect Patterson,” you will love this book. If, however,
you like to think for yourself, buy another.
In the typical peer-driven desire to join a political in-group,
Patterson has climbed on a hobby horse he knows will attract the icons. “I
am one with you,” his book seems to cry out in a plaintive bleating that
begs for acceptance. (No problem, Dick. You’re in.)
How contrived and predictable - creating characters to match what
members of the political in-group are supposed to believe. Here characters
from the political “in-group” have no flaws, but those who disagree with
them are flawed. And the writer has enough skill to fill readers with
disdain for the flawed characters, manipulating the readers so they will
vote with the political in-group.
No surprise, though, is it? Ten years ago fiction publishers began
adding new categories to their subject lists published in Writer’s Market
and elsewhere. “We are one with you!” they were saying to the political
in-groups, or more specifically activist associations, which evidently had
threatened to criticize them. Investigate for yourself. Just compare their
subject listings between 1988 and 1996, for example.
If the publishers ignored new writers – and they did –then the only way
to get noticed was to create something the publishers could use to
proclaim their own political purity. Patterson did. Now he’s in. Vote for
Writers, please avoid this weakness.
You can make it on your own. Have some pride. Show your integrity.
Attend the Holistic Writer Workshop
Inspiration for Writers:
Go Back in Time!...
our new all - immersion Life of Jesus (Part 1) from David C. Cook
III. You'll become a true believer. Visit...
is dedicated to the memory of David C. Cook III.
This month we finally finish the epic. It's about time,
you might say.
If you have developed deep and meaningful characters,
you will have pangs of separation when you let them go.
Far from feeling a mechanical sense of completion, you
will turn away from the keyboard with regret when you finish. And,
depending upon the outcome, you may weep for the characters.
Here you tie the bundle together. Resolve the unresolved
story strings that matter. Let the reader know, without a doubt, how it
all came out.
So, for your assignment, write me "Chapter - The Last"
and send it along. For those of you who have been writing a continuing
saga, package it up and send it along. We'll offer words of encouragement
and put you on the road to completion (and, hopefully, print publication).
See how easy that was?
We look forward to receiving your submission. Mail
Special on Critiques
First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at
50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page. Just mention Publishing
New Writers Newsletter (August, 2001).
Critiques by Sandy Tritt...
- Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach.
Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the
problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose.
More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish
establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
- Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the
"constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to
destroy your confidence.
- Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and
suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
- Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know
where your strengths are.
- Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character
development or other areas that could be strengthened.
- Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will
include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue,
special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view
and any other areas particular to your work.
- If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your
areas of weakness.
- Answer any questions you may have via email.
- Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.
For Sandy's success stories, see
Write Sandy at firstname.lastname@example.org
(See Sandy's article in the left column.)
Publishing New Writers,
August, 2001 (no.208)
Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.
Fax (847) 428-8974.
If [you] can continue to
send me more useful information of any sort pertaining to writing
it would be greatly appreciated. Your March newsletter has already
been of a good deal of help to me.
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