Techniques: Show - Don't Tell
First Rule of Writing is Show, Don’t
Tell. 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,
especially in dialogue and action.
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’’ or the
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
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 is discussed in
Section 2. Second, it is cheap.
It is telling, not showing. Let the
power of your dialogue and the
accompanying action show your
readers 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
But—does this mean we
should act out absolutely
everything? Uh-uh. Let’s face it—if
we showed everything, our novels
would run tens of thousands of
pages—and readers would die of
exhaustion. So what do we do? We
must decide what information the
reader needs. Just because we know
everything about our characters and
just because we spent weeks
researching, it isn’t necessary to
share everything we know with our
reader. We must choose only the
details we need to authenticate our
story and omit everything else.
telling what happens. This is useful
when the acting out of the story (by
dialogue and action) does nothing to
further our understanding of the
characters or plot.
explaining why something happened or
gives background information.
One of the most
difficult and most crucial elements
in story-telling is knowing when to
give play-by-play action and when to
back off and summarize. Play with
this. If a scene doesn’t hold your
interest, maybe it is better to
summarize it in a sentence or two
and go on to something more
important. However, if it is a
pivotal scene in the plot or
critical to our understanding how
our character reacts in a given
situation, go for it. Give us
action, give us dialogue, and let us
experience and savor every single
moment of it.
Show, Don’t Tell
the following (see Section 6
for possible solutions):
Jessica was a pretty girl, although
she was rather stupid at times.
Kathy told Martin that he was too
old for her.
wouldn’t go in there,” the secretary
Jeremy wanted to win, but he was
afraid he wouldn’t.
copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All
rights reserved, except for those
listed here. The article can 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
www.InspirationForWriters.com.for permission and additional
resources at no or limited charge.
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Publishing New Writers,
December, 2006 (no. 712)
Publisher: Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.
Fax (847) 428-8974.
To subscribe and/or review our archive of past newsletters, go to
Sure-Fire Ways to Get Your Book into
by Patricia L. Fry
Imagine that you are an author. You’ve just received a
shipment of your first published book from your printer or POD
publisher. You admire your book, hold it, fondle it and do your best to
keep from dancing around the room. Some of you do dance around the
room—I did. I even broke out a bottle of champagne.
You head for the nearest mega-bookstore to experience
the thrill of seeing your books shelved there next to America’s
bestsellers. You search and you search, but your book is nowhere to be
found. As any savvy marketer would do, you approach the store manager.
"I’m sorry," he says. "We don’t carry self-published
or digitally published books." WHAT? That’s certainly not what your
fee-based POD publisher told you. In fact, as you recall, your POD
publishing representatives claimed that your book would be sold in all
major bookstores throughout the nation.
Think about it, is that really what she said? Or did
she say, "We will make your book available to all major bookstores
throughout the nation?" Translated, this means, "If a bookstore manager
comes to us looking for a book of this type, we will be sure to tell him
I meet numerous disillusioned and disappointed authors
each year at conferences, book festivals and online. They are shocked to
learn that bookstores will not carry their books and they don’t know
where to turn for sales. It might surprise you to know that even some of
the small and medium-sized publishing houses do not have access to
bookstores as an outlet for their authors’ books.
My advice to these authors is, "If the entrance to the
bookstore is closed, go through the backdoor." I tell them, in essence,
"Instead of whining and griping, expend your energies making your book
irresistible to booksellers." How? Promote. Promote. Promote. When
customers come in droves requesting your book, bookstores will stock it.
Demonstrate to the powers-that-be at Barnes and Noble
and Borders that your book can attract hundreds or thousands of
customers and they may well decide to carry it. Here are some ideas:
Make Your Book More Salable
A man came to me once with his self-published book and
asked, "Why won’t bookstores carry my book?" At first glance, I could
tell him several reasons. The book did not have an International
Standard Book Number (ISBN) or a bar code. He had not filled out the
Advance Book Information form (ABI) thus his book was not listed in
Books In Print (the main directory through which booksellers order
books). And the book had a comb binding. Bookstore owners and librarians
are reluctant to stock comb bound and saddle stitched (stapled) books.
This man had also made another universal mistake. He
wrote the book as a first step. I tell my clients, readers and audiences
to always write a book proposal first. If you compile a complete, honest
and thorough book proposal before ever putting pen to paper or fingers
to keyboard, you will produce a more salable book.
A book proposal is a business plan for your book and,
whether you want to believe it or not, your book is a product. Learn
more about writing a book proposal by reading, How to Write a
Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less (Matilija Press, 2005).
Announce Your Book To The World
Have you heard the phrase, build it and they will
come? Well, this concept worked in the movie, but it is the wrong
approach to selling books. The author’s motto or mantra should be:
promote, promote, promote.
Whether you’ve landed a big fish in the publishing
industry or you decide to jump in and swim with the sharks, it is up to
you—the author—to promote your book. No one will buy your wonderful book
if they don’t know about it. No one will know about it unless you tell
them. And with so many books being published today and readership
dwindling, competition is an obstacle that most hopeful authors fail to
This is not to say that selling books is impossible.
On the contrary, it just takes creativity, time, energy and the
willingness to step outside your comfort zone. A key to selling books is
letting people know the book exists.
How does one get the word out? Send press releases to
newspapers, newsletters and magazines. Announce your book, request a
book review, offer to write an article and/or make yourself available
for an interview.
Research newspapers through www.newspaperlinks.com,
www.newspapers.com or www.onlinenewspapers.com. Locate columns related
to your book topic: cooking, pets, education, fashion, crafts, business,
seniors, finance or home and garden, for example. If you’ve written a
novel or historical account set in a particular region, contact
newspapers in that geographic area.
Locate appropriate magazines to contact through
Writer’s Market, writersmarket.com or woodenhorsepub.com.
Gale’s Directory of Publications
lists newsletters whose editors are hungry for new about
books such as yours.
Make news by doing something noteworthy. Start a
charity related to your topic, head up an unusual project and involve
hundreds of people or attempt a difficult fete and challenge others to
participate. Create stories worth reporting and then send press releases
to appropriate media.
Newspaper stories, articles and interviews sell books.
If you can get even just one newspaper in each state to run a story
about you or to review your book, you could conceivably attract
thousands of customers. If your book is listed in Books in Print,
every bookstore everywhere can order it for their customers who request
Talk It Up
Let word of mouth drive sales. That is, your
words coming from your mouth. Don’t wait for others to start
talking about your book. You create the buzz.
Talk about your book everywhere you go. Carry a copy
of your book in your purse or briefcase and a carton in your trunk.
Arrange speaking engagements. Go out and talk to civic
group members, at conferences related to the subject of your book and at
writing/publishing conferences. Appropriate venues for your talks might
include libraries, schools, churches, synagogues, senior centers,
specialty stores and/or businesses for example. If you have a book on
ADHD, you might get gigs at medical conventions and PTA meetings.
Schedule talks about your Civil War novel at Daughters of the American
Revolution and historical society meetings as well as museums. Promote
your book on business management through presentations at corporations,
businesses conventions and so forth.
Carry Your Message Far and Wide
Arrange book signings and presentations throughout the
U.S. Coordinate these with your visit to family in Colorado, your
vacation on the east coast and your spouse’s business meeting to the
northwest. Independent bookstores are usually open to book signings. If
you can’t get into a bookstore, solicit specialty stores related to your
book, coffee houses or other venues.
Before arriving for the event, arrange for a spot on a
local talk radio or TV show. Alert at least one bookstore in this city
to the fact that you are coming and that you will be promoting your book
through radio station XYZ, for example. Knowing this, they will most
likely take some of your books on consignment.
Be sure to get newspaper publicity for your
presentation. Send press releases to all local newspapers at least 2 ½
weeks prior to your visit and follow up with phone calls.
Visit other bookstores while in the area to see if you
can place books with them. If you have managed good coverage for your
talk and good publicity for your book, they will probably agree to stock
Produce an interesting, informative, entertaining
newsletter. Use it to promote your book, of course, while also giving
your readers something of value. How many times have you been told that
you must give in order to receive? It’s true in book promotion, too. Ask
potential customers to request your book directly from bookstores in
their areas. As your subscriber list grows, so will your book sales.
Book Proposal Tip Sheet
So you have to write a book proposal.
Okay, the first thing you should do is
panic. That’s right. Panic. After all,
writing a book proposal is akin to
stepping out of a plane at 10,000 feet
and praying that you’ll have enough wits
to pull your parachute release at the
right moment. Or standing in front of
15,000 professionals to give a
knowing the subject you’re to have
prepared. Or taking your
fifteen-year-old out to drive for the
first time—in rush hour traffic. In
downtown Rome. Fear Factor has
nothing on book professionals. Eating
bugs is easy. Writing a proposal? Yikes!
If that doesn’t get your heart pumping
hard enough and long enough to count as
your daily aerobic exercise, you just
might be dead.
Assuming you’ve survived the
panic step, it’s time to move on to
the next stage: Avoidance. This
usually starts by playing computer
solitaire or scrubbing the garbage
disposal. It can last for weeks or
even months. Once your garage is
alphabetized, your basement
sanitized, and every item in your
closet starched, pressed, and
color-coordinated, it’s time to move
on to the third step: Actually Doing
How do you start? First, open a
word processing document. Second,
save the document as "Book
Proposal." Third, look at the
requirements for the publisher or
agent you’re submitting to. Most
will provide a list of what they
want included, which may or may not
include a cover page, table of
contents, sell sheet, biographical
sketch, book description, chapter
outline, sample chapters, market
analysis, competitive analysis,
marketing plan, and manuscript
history. Now, you’ve already
panicked and you’ve already avoided,
so breathe slowly into a paper bag
and stay with me. In your open
document, put the first requirement
at the top of the page. Insert a
page break and type the second
requirement. Insert a page break and
type the third. And so on, until you
have a page for each part of the
book proposal. Now, you are ready to
move on to the next stage: Writing
Start with the cover page.
Type the name of your book, your
name, your mailing address, your
email address, and the genre and
word count of your manuscript.
Center it on the page and make it
look nice. Go to the next page,
table of contents. This means
the table of contents of your
book proposal, not your
manuscript. List each of the
remaining items in your book
proposal and leave a space to fill
in the page number later. Wow.
You’ve already knocked off two of
those empty pages. Now, take a look
at the pages that are left. Which
one is the easiest for you? Perhaps
you know exactly which chapter or
chapters you want to include for the
sample chapters. Copy and
paste them into your book proposal.
Another page done. Perhaps you’ve
already written a synopsis of your
work. Copy and paste it into your
sell sheet. Now, again, look at
what pages you have left and pick
the easiest one. If you need to
write a bio, remember that what the
agent or editor is looking for here
is why you are the best person to
write this specific book, so unless
having spent six months in the
hospital when you were eight
directly affects your ability to
write this book, don’t mention it.
Likewise, don’t mention your parents
or your siblings or your first grade
teacher unless they directly affect
your book. Instead, choose your
education, professional experience,
and writing history—awards,
publications, and completions. Type
this on the biographical sketch
Look again at your remaining
pages. The competitive analysis.
This is the part that scared me the
most, but turned out to be the
easiest. I’d suggest making a trip
to a large bookstore or your local
library. Find the place on the
bookshelf where your book should
appear, and look at the books that
surround this space. Select the best
known ones and write their title,
author, publisher, and a sentence or
two to describe the book. Then write
another sentence or two on what your
book offers that this one doesn’t.
You only need four or five books.
And you’re done with another blank
Okay, what’s left? The book
description. Describe your book,
including its purpose, its intended
audience, and what the reader will
take away when he or she reads the
book. Include what makes your book
unique or compelling. The market
analysis. Identify your book or
novel's audience—the specific type
of person who will read your book,
such as parents of newborns or young
people who are preparing to join the
military, and then describe your
ability, if any, to sell books at
speaking engagements, conferences,
book signings, and other events. The
marketing plan is simply
reassuring the agent or editor that
there is a market for your book and
that you are able to help market it.
List ways in which you will assist
in the marketing of your book:
perhaps you will set up a website,
create promotional giveaways such as
bookmarks or postcards, arrange your
own book signing, or attend
conferences where people will be
interested in this subject. If a
manuscript history is requested,
list any editors or publishers
you’ve previously submitted the
Now, we have only one area left:
chapter summary. Although
this may take a bit more time, it
shouldn’t be a difficult task.
First, list your chapters by number
and/or by name. Then, look over the
chapter and write a paragraph that
summarizes that chapter. Many times,
the chapter’s opening and closing
paragraphs will give you this
information. If not, list the most
important topics or ideas covered in
this chapter. Now, go back and enter
the page numbers on your table of
contents. And guess what? You’re
finished. Yep. Done. DO NOT bind it
unless the editor or agent has
requested you do so. All you have to
do is proof it, send it out, and
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
6 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Your Book
into Bookstores (continued)
Indies—Independent Bookstores, That
You might be
surprised to know that there are
still hundreds of independent
bookstores around. What is an
independent bookstore? It’s
independently operated. The owner
does not have to answer to a big
conglomerate. Show an indie owner
that you can bring in customers and
he or she will carry your book. Be
willing to leave your books on
consignment and the deal becomes
even more attractive to a
booksellers in person. Visit those
within your community, throughout
your county and then up and down
your state. Travel to nearby states
for access to more independent
bookstores. And always stop in to
show off your book to booksellers
whenever you’re traveling.
Follow up in two
ways—by doing your part to initiate
sales in these areas and by checking
back frequently with the store
manager to monitor sales and
Learn How to Play
With the Big Boys
Land a traditional
royalty publisher who has access to
bookstore shelf space and your book
will, most likely, be sold through
mega-bookstores. How can you get a
big publisher to give you the time
of day? Make an impression.
There is one thing
that impresses most publishers and
that is a big bottom line. Show a
publisher the money, honey, and he
is likely to give you a whirl. Make
sales, any kind of sales. Sell books
over the Internet, go door-to-door,
set up a stand on a hot day and give
free lemonade with each book
purchase, have friends living
throughout the U.S. act as sales
reps in their areas, buy billboard
space in New York City for a month.
Sell enough books and generate a
following and a publisher will
become interested in your project.
Here are two
publishing industry truths:
book in Barnes and Noble and/or
Borders does not guarantee that
your books will sell well. Not
even! Many of the books that
make it into a bookstore have a
very short shelf life. Just look
at the competition in these
mega-bookstores. Books that
aren’t selling well, are removed
from the system within a matter
become successful without ever
stepping foot in a
mega-bookstore. They sell books
through specialty stores and
Amazon.com. They do
back-of-the-room sales. They
sell corporations on purchasing
their books as premiums (to give
away to customers, for example).
Other lucrative customers might
include libraries and school
districts. Some authors market
their books quite successfully
through their professional-grade
Some of you have
already found out that authorship is
not for wimps. While youmay have
been in your element while writing
your book, promotion is something
foreign and even frustrating. Use
the points in this article to put
things in a more reasonable
perspective. Follow the suggestions
here and, with or without the
bookstores, you will succeed in this
Patricia Fry is
the author of 25books including
The Right Way to Write, Publish and
Sell Your Book, (Matilija Press,
2006, www.matilijapress.com.) She is
also the president of SPAWN (Small
Publishers, Artists and Writers
Network) www.spawn.org. Follow
Patricia’s informative publishing
blog at www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog