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 August, 2001

The First Rule of Writing

Show, Don't Tell

by Sandy Tritt

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 character's ...

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 imaginary world.

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 at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

            Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers











Write with Integrity

Opinion, by Bruce Cook

This review compares two books.  One book demonstrates integrity while the other just talks about it.

1.     1. 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 Patterson. Cheers.

Big deal.

Writers, please avoid this weakness. You can make it on your own. Have some pride. Show your integrity.

Bruce Cook

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Writing Assignment:

Ending Your Epic

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 to:


Thank you!

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 http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(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. 

Thank you

Dave Fox

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