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 January, 2004

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Advanced Techniques: 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 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’’ 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 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 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 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 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.

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

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net

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Writers Write

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 my wall.

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 love.

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 pajamas.

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 long for.

Life is great.

Critiquing Special

  • Limited time special, one cent per word.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (January, 2004).

    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  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 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 the world.

Click here for more info...

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Publishing New Writers,

January, 2004 (no. 501)


Publisher: Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

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Getting Away with Murder

"Something up with which we will not put." Winston Churchill.

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 speed-camera 'revenue-raisers'.

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 tennis/cricket/golf/basketball/tiddlywinks,
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 means
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 the name
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 noteworthy names.

My second example is of an exceptional writer's work. (Again, I will name
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 balloons_210a@optusnet.com.au

Now, and I glance at the clock and at my wife, who stands with some menace
in the doorway, I shall as usual say, 'out of time,' and out for dinner.

Ken Mulholland

Country Editor - Australia

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