Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lassoing the Nasty "Show, Don't Tell" Rule

If you haven’t had a chance to read posts from this week, you’re in for a treat.  We’re rustlin’ up some of our favorite newbie writer's rules.  Today we’ll lasso “Show, Don’t Tell.”

A regular frustration during my writing course came when my instructor scribbled comments like:   “What did he look like when he was angry?”  At first I stared at the question.  What did he mean by that? Everyone knows what anger looks like.  Aack!

After many trial and errors, I realized my teacher wanted me to show “anger” not simply tell “anger” in my text. BTW this doesn’t mean I’m a graduate of the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule.  

Think of a silent movie, (a later one done in color for this purpose) in which one character is filled with rage.  Since there isn’t a cue card or sound, the character needs to “show” rage to the audience.  She’ll probably exaggerate components like a balled fist, red face, bulging eyes, body leaning forward, and etc. to communicate “rage.”

One mistake I’ve made when attempting to “show” is adding too many words.  The goal is not to add or take away words, but to have the best words. Here’s where the “Write Tight” rule hops in.  Perhaps someone will address that in a future post.

The following paragraph "tells" about a storm:

Last night while working on my story a storm blew out of nowhere and pelted the neighborhood.  At one point the wind broke through the study window. Unfortunately, the computer shut off before I could power down.  I have to admit, I was scared.  My daughter was scared, too.  I found her in the hall and hugged her. As we sat together huddled on the floor, the power blinked then faded. I prayed for God's help and held her close.  

1.     Do you have a visual of this scene?
2.     Did you have sensory clues like sounds, smells, sights, texture, or tastes?
3.     Did you experience this scene with the character?

Here is a "showing" version of the same scene:

I tapped one or two new words to my WIP.  For some bizarre reason my characters wouldn’t speak to me tonight. 

The houselights flickered.  Sure looked like another summer storm brewing.  "Come, on, just two hundred more words to make my count." 


“Katy? Why are you up?”

“Th—th--there’s a loud noise.”

“Go back to bed, Sweetie. It’s only rain.” I watched her toddle off, blanket in tow. 

Rain tapped on the house in the same rhythm as the keys.  A second thunderclap rattled the windows.  I glanced up as the lights flickered again.


The monitor flashed black  “I’m coming.” 

Her footsteps rapped on the hall floor.  Without warning the lights evaporated.  “Momma!”

I groped the air in front of me. God, please show me where the doorway is.  “Stay where you are, Katy. Momma’s coming.”

I inched a few steps forward. Something is—what’s that humming sound? Thunder cracked. Lightening flashed through the windows. I ran toward the door. “Katy?”

Her scream sliced through pounding hailstones on the roof.

“Stay still, I’m coming.”  Where is she?  My arms flailed back and forth in the blank air.  I took another step forward and felt her soft, baby hair.  She lunged at my leg and squeezed.  “We’re OK, Sweetie.” I tried to slow my breath.  “It’s only a storm.”

We snuggled right there on the floor.  She whined, “I’m scared.” Her little heart pulsed like a speeding train against my skin. I pulled her back into the study and rubbed her back.  

Look back at the questions listed above. Would your answers differ for this second version? Which scene gave you a visual, provided you with sensory clues, and allowed you to experience the event with the character?  

Some telling paragraphs are longer than the showing version. This is often caused by unnecessary description.  The goal is not to add or take away words, but to have the best words  

There are several great sites offering worksheets and samples for the Show Don't Tell rule.  Here are a two:
has great practice worksheets
(excellent-teaches, gives practice-click for possible answer.)

Do you have an example of Show, Don’t Tell to share?


Krista Phillips said...

I probably have a ton of examples... I'll rustle one up later.

BUT! GREAT job! LOVE the illustration. Sometimes showing DOES add words... but sometimes it doesn't.

I think the key is to know when you need to show something, or when the details are unneeded and you can just tell it.

An example: She walked to the fridge and grabbed a coke.

A nice, telling sentence.

Or: She stood up and cracked her back. Some cold, caffeinated liquid sounded so good right now. The frieze carpet squished between her toes as she made her way across the living room floor. Her knee crashed into the couch, but she ignored the pain on her quest. The kitchen was dark when she entered, but she fixed that with a flip of the switch. Ah, wonderful light. Opening the stainless steel side-by-side fridge, she glanced over the contents. There, on the 3rd shelf, was her lifeline. A 20-oz bottle of coke.

Krista Phillips said...

Okay, I ran out of room, but my point was, it's an example where just telling a minor detail is better than going through the yuckyness of showing it in all it's non-glory:-)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Absolutely! It's easy to go overboard. Thank God He gave us critique groups to pull us back into reality.
Thanks for stopping by Krista. How ya feeling?

Krista Phillips said...


Very big:-)

Sidney W. Frost said...

I'm afraid my examples would be telling, not showing. Thanks for the useful information. There's nothing like a good example.

Cathy C. Hall said...

The "Show, Don't Tell" thing is like a jack-in-the box, isn't it? Everytime I think I have it down, up it pops again! :-)

Thanks for the tips and worksheet link-what a fun blog y'all have.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Mary!!!! This was excellent! Seriously, I love the example because it really brought it home to me. I am editing right now and have quite a bit of telling. It was good to "see" how you do it right!

Hey Big Girl! Excellent point you brought up. There is no reason to show EVERYTHING. Ha! "Non-Glory" indeed! lol Great example! (Are you feeling okay, other than big? Big is a good thing when you are pregnant and getting close to the due date!)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Cathy, I love the jack-in-the-box description! That is a great way to look at how I do it. :)

Casey said...

Mary, WOW, that is a wonderful post. I so struggle with telling instead of showing. It seems everywhere I turn in my writing I am telling. ARGH!!! Yes, thank goodness indeed for good critique partners, now I just need to find one! Ha! :)

Great, great post, loved it all the way. I am going to have to remember to look this one back up when I struggle with the rule. :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sidney.
I'll bet you have some great "showing" blurbs in your wip :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I had fun researching sites to share. There were a couple I didn't like, but plenty with good resources. These two offered opportunity for the reader to participate. Great way to teach:)
This week, on Writer's Alley we're finding several "Jack-in-the-box" issues!
Never a dull moment for writers :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I must give credit to Steven King's book on writing for the initial idea. He assigns a scene to the reader to complete: a woman is alone in her home and....something scary happens. Anyway, the assignment popped in my head when considering what to write for the "show" I realized scary scenes can be fun to write!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks, Casey!
I searched a long time for a critique partner. Realized non live in the dusty plains and mountains of Billings. Have resorted to online groups and individuals. you :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Keeping you in my prayers as the day nears:)

Casey said...

Yes, people like you. :D

Ralene said...

This is my first visit to this blog, and WOW! Mary, great post! Your example was excellent.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks Ralene. Looking forward to seeing you here again:)

Pepper said...

What a GREAT post. Wow - and with examples. Speak to me in parables, girl. I'm all for that. :-)
Oooh, I just want to kick myself when I fall into a 'telling' moment - and lots of times I don't even know it until someone else reads it. Sigh
It's a learning process, right?
Btw - you people are having WAY to much fun ;-)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks Pepper. This has been fun.

Yee Haw! Roundin' up the words to write for a post is like diggin' into a stack of jacks smothered in pure maple syrup...that'll take you to hog heaven fur sure!
Back when I 'twas knee-high to a grass hopper, my pappy told me to tell it like it't tell. :)

Jeanette Levellie said...

Excellent example in the storm story--I could feel the daughter's fear and your frustration at not finding her right away. Thanks for sharing, I mean, showing.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks for stopping by Jeanette, and for your comment. :)