Thursday, March 18, 2010

Practical Show and Tell

I read blogs all the time. I should keep a notebook just to write down the ones I should send you to for some great writing lessons. The blogosphere is full of talk about showing vs. telling and today I'm going to summarize what I've picked up.

Showing is great because it creates a visual image, draws in the reader, and allows the reader to use their brains to figure things out without having everything spelled out to them. (And let's face it, we read to escape, not be lectured at...well, at least that is why I read.) However, sometimes it is necessary to tell the reader certain things. The trick is finding the balance and knowing when to show and when to tell.


Telling--I stood nervously while I waited to see how he would react.

Showing--Swallowing hard, I chewed on my bottom lip hoping the butterflies in my stomach would not fly out of my mouth. Folding my trembling hands in front of me, I waited for him to respond to my question.

Do you see the difference? As a reader it is easier to visualize the scene when shown some physical actions. Although the word "nervous" is not used in the second set, the reader recognizes nervous habits.  

This is what I have been working on with this round of revisions. As I read a scene, paragraph, or sentence, I will ask myself, "How could I show that without saying [fill in the blank]?" It is a good exercise because I have to close my eyes and try to "see" what that scene would look like, or image a conversation that would convey those feelings or behaviors. I still need a lot of practice, but I've started a list of emotion and how to "show" them. 

Forget the list I typed up and head over to The Bookshelf Muse for a fantastic Emotion Thesaurus. I am not even going to attempt to tell you how awesome it is. She has put a ton of work into it so we can write better books. How awesome is that! The Emotion Thesaurus is in the right hand side bar, just scroll down until you see it.

Thanks to Spacefreighters Lounge for tweeting and blogging about the Emotion Thesaurus so I could find it and share it with you.


  1. Oooh, this should become a show not tell reference dictionary methinks! Fab post :~D Ummmm, I'll give it a shot then.

    Agitation - fidgeting whilst action and/or dialogue goes on (tongue clicking, feet jiggling, finger tapping on desk etc), pursing lips, sighing heavily, rattling change in pocket during dialogue and generally exaggerating actions that would normally be silent i.e. flicking loudly through a magazine or book without reading it (...not that one of my characters does all of the above a lot, or anything...)

    Pensiveness - running jewellery along it's chain, rattling a watch, staring into middle distance, maybe wearing a slight frown, resting chin on a hand if sat at desk...

    Uh, I'm sure I'll add more if they come to me but that's all I got for now :~) I can't wait to see the other suggestions!

  2. Oh lol, ok then :P ignore my pervious comment I'll be over at the Bookshelf Muse if you need me :~)

  3. haha, I know! I posted this and not five minutes later I found the Emotions Thesaurus. I figure why knock ourselves out when someone already did all that work?

    I loved your examples though.

  4. This is a big one for me. I write and then think about how I could show it and not tell. Instead of saying "he was nervous" how can I show it? Was he shifting his weight, bitting his finger nails? I've found that when you tell, you move the story along much too quickly and it's so dull. LOL.

  5. Here's something else to throw into the mix... try not using the word "was". :D I know, I show up, brand new and make it all difficult. I have a Beta Reader to thank for that piece of advice.

    I'll slink off and read back blogs now... lol :D

  6. Caledonia, thanks for the comment. I love when people share what they are learning, so come back often. You never know who needs to here that advice. Passive voice is my other nemesis and I posted about that Here.

    It is great to have a good reader to help you catch the things we miss. Another great way to catch weird phrases or words is to read it out loud. If you can read aloud to someone else it is even more helpful.

  7. Story of my life, Charity! I ALWAYS have problems with telling and not showing. Always. My poor critique group is tired of telling me this! I think it's because I use passive voice too much. I'm trying to incorporate more storytelling into the dialogue and characterization so I can use less telling. Thank you for the informative post!

  8. Angela is awesome, isn't she? But so are you! Good luck with your revisions.


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