Rock Your Revisions: How to Show Without Telling

Note:  big thanks to relatively new subscriber Annie for this topic!  🙂

One of the things I often catch when I’m editing a manuscript is the dreaded “show, don’t tell.”  The story’s going along swimmingly, then suddenly you hit a sand trap of several lengthy paragraphs of exposition. Sometimes, I can’t even remember what’s happening in the scene, and need to flip back to pick up what the originating action was.

The writer is telling me what’s happening, who it’s happening to, and basically what I need to know… and, if we’re being honest, the writer is trying her damnedest to tell me how to feel about what I’m reading.

But, being the recalcitrant reader that I am, I don’t want someone telling me how to feel.  I want to make the decision for myself.

Getting your (control) freak on.

It’s an easy trap for writers to fall into.  We want so badly to set the scene and control the reader’s experience that we start dictating rather than letting a scene unfold organically.

We want to explain without a shadow of a doubt the magnitude of what our protagonist is wrestling with — so we crawl into his head, and start narrating what his thought process is.

We want to show that while the heroine’s actions up to this point have been unsympathetic, she’s got a ton of baggage — which we’ll then devote a page and a half to explaining.

We don’t want there to be any misunderstandings… and consequently, we suck the life right out of our manuscripts, and replace it with a symbolic stone carving instead of a living person.

Trust your reader.

Let’s say we’re sitting at a cafe.  A guy walks up.  “Oh, this guy is a total asshole,” I mutter to you.

He walks over.  “Oh, hi, Cathy!  Did you get that book I left for you on your desk?”

“Yes,” I reply, with a tight smile.  “It was very thoughtful of you.”

“I just wanted to thank you for helping me with that project.”  He smiles gently. “And this must be the friend I’ve heard so much about.  It’s great to meet you.”  He shakes your hand.

Then he walks away, and I say, “See?  What did I tell you?  Total asshole!”   

Basically, you’re going to assume that either I am crazy, or that there’s some history between the guy and myself that causes me to froth at the mouth. Even if I explain at length why I feel the way I do, you’re still going to have a niggling doubt because of what you personally experienced.

Now, let’s say this happened instead:

“Get out of my way!”  The guy snaps at a woman who is trying to maneuver two arms full of groceries while riding herd on a toddler.  “And could you keep that damned kid quiet?”  He brushes past her, ignoring the fact that he’s set her off balance.  Her groceries tumble, and the kid starts crying.  He just keeps walking to me.

“Hey, you owe me money.”  He’s glaring.

“What?” I answer. “Why?”

“Because I bought your stupid book, that’s why.  I want a refund.”

I look at you.  Do I even need to tell you my opinion of this guy?  No.  Why?  Because odds are good you already made the connection.

I’m not saying that you need to draw your characters quite so broadly to get the point across.  What I am saying:  trust your reader to draw the right conclusions.

An exercise.

If you’ve gotten an edit that says “telling, not showing” on your work, I’d like you to try the following exercise.

Take the scene, and write it as if you’re writing a play.

You can describe your character.  You can describe the setting.  You can write the dialogue and give stage directions.

But you cannot write one word about how the character is feeling, what his/her backstory is, or what he/she is thinking about.

In most cases, I’d take out any description of how the character delivers the lines.  Think about it like a play — if you’ve written your dialogue clearly enough, if the scene is clear enough, then how the lines should be delivered ought to be evident.  (This also helps eliminate a lot of those pesky adverbs people keep carping about!)

I’m not saying that all fiction should be written in a play-writing style: there’s a richness to prose and an art to novel-writing that is necessarily different.  However, if you find yourself falling into the “telling, not showing” trap, this is one quick cure.

Experiment with alternatives.

That scene, where you have the heroine ruminating about her poor upbringing?  Figure out a way to show the audience that instead.  Would you have her impoverished crackhead mother calling her, screaming for money?  Or simply showing her apologizing profusely to a bill collector, who is awkwardly embarrassed because “it’s not that big a deal”? Maybe show her squirreling money behind light switches in her house?

If you’ve got a handsome rogue who’s actually a nice guy, how would you show that?  The stereotype would be to show him being nice to a dog or a child.  How else can you do it?

Donald Maass, in his wonderful Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, discusses writing down ten possibilities for how a scene could be handled to get a point across — the first five or so are usually cliches, but as your creativity stretches for the next five scenarios, that’s where you find the juice.

Play with different, non-cliche ways to get across what you’re saying in exposition.  Then try the “play” technique, and write the scene in action and dialogue.

Like magic, you’ll see just how quickly your mind gets trained to show, not tell.

For those of you who find this helpful, please re-tweet!

12 Replies to “Rock Your Revisions: How to Show Without Telling”

  1. Some of my new favorite scenes in Bonds are the ones reworked or written to replace those you pointed out as ‘telling vs. showing.’ It does come easier with practice, but I still have to be on guard.

    Great tips here. I love ‘thinking of it like writing a play,’ and I still need to work on eliminating those pesky adverbs. Eight or so years in, and I feel like I’m finally on my way. 😉 Thanks for all your help!

  2. Thank you for the reminder! I was thinking/wondering about this the other day. Sometimes I get it, and then it eludes me, like one of those Magic Eye pictures.
    Good exercises to get it straight in my head. 🙂

  3. As you say, novel writing is richer than a script. I’ve never read a novel that lacked the pov character’s thoughts. Sometimes, the character will think something that they’d never say out loud, and the reader needs to know they’re think it. What if a character has to make an on-the-spot decision that will have story-changing consequences? Should the reader be denied the character’s logic before he opens his mouth with a fateful yes or no? How do you define where the line is between a paragraph (or two or three) of telling exposition that would benefit from being rewritten, and a passage that is just fine as is?

    1. I would never say to cut out exposition entirely: the thoughts serve a purpose, and again, as I mentioned, novel writing is different from play-writing. This is just an exercise, like pre-writing. I have weirder exercises for different issues, believe me!

      This exercise is to help writers who are used to filling up a page or two with exposition, or who describe a conversation or an action in narrative rather than letting a scene unfold. It’s just an exercise. Like all writing, there’s a “sweet spot” that’s difficult to define… but you know it when you see it. If you’re not sure if showing vs. telling is an issue for your writing, you might try highlighting the exposition in your scenes. If you find yourself staring at 2/3rds of a page of highlighting, odds are good you’re telling. If you’re still unsure, I strongly recommend getting a few beta readers. Writers will be able to tell you; “pure readers” (readers who don’t also write) can tell you if they find themselves bored or disconnected from the story, and that’s usually a symptom of the same thing. (Not always! But most of the time, I’ve noticed.)

      1. I agree with the concept of showing not telling, but question whether internal thoughts of a character should be classified as telling. Being privy to a character’s internal thoughts is often what makes me feel connected to a character. Think about Scarlett O’Hara (the book not the movie). So much of what makes that character come to life is her internal thoughts. That being said, I love the exercise and think it will be helpful.

        1. I don’t think all internal monologue is telling. This exercise is just to help people who tend to go too far in one direction — who, instead of letting a scene develop, simply “narrate” the scene from the main character’s internal thoughts, ruminating on something rather than experiencing. But you’re absolutely right: it’s easy to over-correct and cut everything out, too, which wouldn’t be good! It takes practice, and experimentation. I’m glad that you like the exercise.

  4. Cathy,
    Great advice here. I’m a former newspaper reporter and I have to constantly remind myself to show and not tell. The “telling” habit is ingrained in me. I like the exercises you shared. I will try them. Thanks again.

  5. I love this:

    “…if we’re being honest, the writer is trying her damnedest to tell me how to feel about what I’m reading.”

    I never realized why it was that books with much narration bug me. I’m reading a pretty big author’s book right now, and I’m finding it really difficult to keep going. She has little character interaction (though it’s a contemporary romance novel), but lots of explanations about why they are acting the way they are, their backstory, etc., after each bit of brief contact. I think that putting it down three times now to read something else is a pretty good indication, I don’t care for this author’s style…mostly, I now realize, because I DO feel like I’m being told how I should feel based on what’s happened to the character in the past.

    On the flip side, I recently read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Dream a Little Dream for the third or fourth time (I swear I’m going to start a shrine to her!) and was struck yet again at how well she shows her characters’ true sides. The hero has lost a wife and son and has become a bitter, nasty, cynical man, who absolutely hates that the heroine and her young son have invaded his pity party. He’s mean to her and her kid, who are poor as dirt. But then, as much as he hates her and what she symbolizes…he feeds her. He knows she is giving up eating to not take precious food from her kid’s mouth, so he feeds her. Shoves a McDonald’s bag at her and tells her he’s going to watch her eat every bite. Maybe not with a smile on his face, but it’s the gesture that says more than narration of “He was really a kind and gentle man underneath, who had a soft spot for strays and the injured” ever would have.

    Nobody had to tell me how profound that was or that I needed to cry. 🙂

    1. Thanks, everybody, for the feedback! I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and Annie’s email gave me the nudge to finally get it done already. 🙂

      Glad you guys found it helpful!

  6. Hi Cathy, good stuff here, and in record time. Thank you. I’ll certainly be testing this exercise tonight.
    I love the challenge of not being allowed to write about how the characters are feeling or what they’re thinking, because I’m guilty of both.
    I can’t wait to persuade my brain to show instead of tell.  Oh well practice, practice, practice.
    Thanks again.

  7. One of the best pieces of writing advice I got from a class was, “Show – and then tell.” Depending on the genre, you don’t want the story to go careening too fast either. And I like some telling – there’s a fine balance there. Great examples, Cathy!

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