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Show, Don't Tell
by Sandy Tritt
The 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
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 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
“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
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:
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
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
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.
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.
NARRATIVE is 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.
EXPOSITION is explaining why something happened or gives background
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.
EXERCISE: Show, Don’t Tell
Show the following (see Section 6 for possible solutions):
1. Jessica was a pretty girl, although she was rather stupid at times.
2. Kathy told Martin that he was too old for her.
3. “I wouldn’t go in there,” the secretary snipped.
4. Jeremy wanted to win, but he was afraid he wouldn’t.
(from Section 4, Workbook)
Want more great tips and techniques? Our
Inspiration for Writers
Tips and Techniques Workbook is now available. Expanded tips, more
topics, reproducible worksheets, exercises to practice what you learn and
much more--check it out! Free shipping anywhere in the United States.
(c) copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. September 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.
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.
From Paul the Apostle...
By Kurt Schuller
inspired work recreating
by Tina Portelli
I have always imagined that I would
someday become a famous writer.
In my ultimate fantasy, I see myself
sitting in front of my computer facing
a picture window. I am retired. I am
respected. I am in my pajamas, in my
wonderful spacious home, which sits on
a stilted house on the beach, with my
beautiful chimes and soft cat for
company. I sit and ponder my next
line. My published works line the
shelves of my office. My awards adorn
Life is good.
Steaming coffee to my left, and a
notepad on my right, next to the
mouse. The note is a reminder that I
have to write something every day. It
doesn't matter what it is, or who see
it, as long as I can get words on the
page. They do not have to make sense,
for now. It is practice, it is as
important as any physical excersize.
It is more difficult to come up with
new story lines. I have to rely on
memory more than current experience. I
am sequestered at the ocean, not
getting around as much as I used to.
My stories were a tapestry of my life
back then, amusing, adventurous, but
now just sea and sand fill my world.
It is no longer easy doing what I
In the reality, as I write these
words, I am still a working woman,
riding the subway every day, making a
living, trying to look good and be a
stand-up kind of gal. My computer sits
facing a not so clean average size
window dressed with a cheap curtain,
and a lone tree surrounded by blue
stone. On the top floor in a small
side room I do not struggle for words,
they come easily. That is because I am
living, experiencing, not a shut in. I
am participating. I never know what's
on tomorrows menu. My
ears are always perked as my coffee
and I am receptive to new ideas and no
In the fantasy I have become the
ultimate writer, except for lack of
material. In the reality, I am
uncomfortable in my small writing
space, but the place in my head is
full. While the future is what I wish
for, I know it will be the past I will
Life is great.
Critiques by Sandy
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
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
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
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 have via
Provide my telephone number for a
personal follow-up, if you desire.
For Sandy's success stories, see
Write Sandy at
(See Sandy's article above.)
Read... Move Over Maharishi
By Dee Landerman
An ordinary housewife is catapulted into the unknown. For over twenty-five years with one foot in the other dimension, experiences visions, apparitions, and visits from the divine. As a Christian Intuitive with the ability to see into a person’s spirit, she experienced first hand where the departed go.
She shares her life
openly with you, with the intent to
give answers and direction for you to
find power, peace and acceptance in
your own life. Dee reveals the ‘Heart
Of God’ about organized religion and
today’s churches, sharing God’s
concerns and desires for America and
Click here for more info...
Visit our sister websites...
Publishing New Writers,
January, 2004 (no. 501)
Publisher: Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.
Fax (847) 428-8974.
Submissions /comments email@example.com.
To subscribe and/or review our archive of past newsletters, go to
Getting Away with Murder
"Something up with which we will not put."
by Ken Mulholland.
Who says you can't get away with murder?
Writers, and those who like to think of themselves as writers, have been
doing exactly that for about as long as writing itself. And they have been
rather persuasive in their ability to do so.
That, possibly might have something to do with a growing reputation and
a popular acceptance of their works, but there also may be other factors
to consider. Take for instance the very well known Winston Churchill quote
above. Here he ends a sentence with a preposition, and gets away with it.
Some would think that he should have got a very stiff sentence for
Then again, he was a politician as well as a writer, and politicians
have their own 'polly-speak' and pet phrases that come and go in phases.
Here in Australia, over the years, we have had 'ad hoc' decisions, loads
of 'parish-pump nonsense,' 'down to the wire' elections that only get a
result, 'at the end of the day,' media 'beat-ups' and political
Then we have swags of radio and sporting commentators who strangle the
English language with such gems as, 'that "all goes well' for us,'
meaning in fact, 'that augurs well for us,' as in signs, omens and
anticipation. Another favourite is, 'he's certainly "on song"
today.' You can apply that one to any
whatever, situation. But what does the phrase 'on song' actually mean? I
have a hunch it means, as we Australian's would say, 'sweet bugger all!'
Somewhere in the back of my mind, the French word 'ensemble', meaning
'getting it together,' fits into this conundrum. 'He's certainly
assembled/got it together, fits well if you think of the French
pronunciation of the word ensemble-it's almost 'onsomb' with a hardly
voiced 'le'. So, do we get an 'on song' out of 'ensemble?' Quite possibly,
if you take this next one as gospel.
I once heard that Elvis Presley had died of a 'bee sting'. Urban myth
or not, the word the poor fool was trying to interpret was 'obesity.' And
that wasn't accurate anyway.
'Stand by, tell the men we're going to advance!' Pass it on!' 'Stand
by, tell the men we're going to a dance!' Pass it on!' The omission of
only one letter; a tiny 'v', may alter an entire meaning.
Oh dear! How eagerly, how easily, language can, and is twisted,
mangled, distorted and duplicated. And not only by the media and writers.
Composers are capable of overusing, if not abusing, words.
Try this, 'But if this ever-changing world "in" which we live
"in" makes you give "in" and cry.' Sure it works for
lyrics, but very lumpy, Sir Paul. And often lyrics force words into the
mix, so that the whole will work.
Things like 'The sun, "it" was high'.
The 'it' has to be there to make the next line fit. Or, and here are two
prime examples: 'Until the "very" start.' and 'Until the
"very" end. Again 'very' is only required to make another line
work. Otherwise, any writer worth his salt would tell you that these
'ins' and 'its' and 'verys' are totally redundant.
O.K. O.K. I hear you saying it, none of us is perfect. And you're quite
right. Every writer or would-be writer can, and often does, fumble. The
point of this little article is just to heighten your awareness of
repeated, mismanaged words and phrases.
'The wine-dark sea.'
'On a dark and stormy night'.
What's wrong with them?
Answer. Nothing. Perfectly good phrases. Wish I had thought of them.
However, in one case I would be thousands of years too late, and in the
other, about a century.
They are only anathema now because everyone, writers and readers, have
heard them down the ages, and they have become passé. It's rather like
slipping on a banana skin. Funny in Charlie Chaplin's day.
Today, as writers, we have to treat our works with caution. And that
reading, and re-reading and getting others to read: searching for the weak
points, the repeated words and phrases.
Things just get plain worn down, and sometimes altered in rhyme. 'No
troubles-No bubbles-No troubs-No bubs.' No sweat.
And sometimes they get altered so as to become almost unrecognisable.
'No way known-No way Jose-No way Hose B.'
Then there are successful modern writers who are still capable of gaffs
that editors should have picked up and instead missed, or simply choose to
overlook. And this brings me back to my earlier point: 'Growing reputation
and popular acceptance,' can allow writers, and their editors, to become
sloppy. Why bother to be vigilant when the public will accept a work on
of the writer?
Here I am about to give two examples, both of which are fact, yet
neither constrained nor indeed should have altered the outcome of the
books. The first is...and I am prepared to divulge the name of the book if
required...a recent fantasy novel, which hopefully has sunk without trace.
In its pages the phrase 'sort of' appeared so many times that it became,
upon reading, almost a fixation; so much so, that I was drawn to look for
it on every page. The second to last page crowned the 'sort of' phrase
category with a total of three. And this work was penned by a pair of very
My second example is of an exceptional writer's work. (Again, I will
the writer and the books if need be.)
Here, there is no great problem. It is just a curious part of this
particular writer's style to repeat certain words and phrases in
consecutive paragraphs. This repetition occurs regularly through several
novels and has almost become a hallmark in style, whether the writer and
the editors of the books realise it or not. To say more on the identities
of the writers just mentioned, might be to place myself in jeopardy. I do
not want to face legal action or to become
the victim of a lynch mob. If you, dear reader, should care to know more,
then I am at your service. You may email me at
Now, and I glance at the clock and at my wife, who stands with some
in the doorway, I shall as usual say, 'out of time,' and out for dinner.
Editor - Australia