Sparked by Words

Show Me How



If you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.

Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Wallace Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to ride shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.

Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master. It fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first. The second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.

Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.

T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)

S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)

Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.

T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)

S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)

Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail

(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)

T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)

S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)

Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.

T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)

S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)

Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.

T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)

S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard, but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the frig and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the frig. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)

What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the fifteen-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)

Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.


Image courtesy: Google public domain image, a Cossack horse in a landscape


Comments on: "Show Me How" (33)

  1. As one who writes non-fiction, I marvel at the creativity of those who can write fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the lesson, Shari. As a person who uses the word, was, way too often, your ‘showing’ how to show helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The word “was” cannot be avoided but only reduced. Sometimes writers try so hard to eliminate “was” they create hairballs out of language. Better in those cases to use it. Learning how to show is a long process and takes much practice. I only presented a small portion of possibilities. And I’m no expert about this either.


  3. Excellent suggestions, especially about ‘telling not showing’. You explain when it’s good to break that rule.


  4. I love when I read a lot of was’s in a an old classic. It reminds me that rules can and should be broken sometimes. Also that writing advice can sometimes change with tastes and times. Loved your examples–especially the husband that made his wife mad with beer cans. 🙂


    • Now I’m laughing. Thankfully that is not my hubby. He does make messes but not with beer cans. Me, I never make messes – oh, wait, please don’t look there. Glad you enjoyed, Adrienne.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Shari, you write in such a way that no one can walk away without completely understanding how to show in their writing. I enjoyed this very much!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Shari, this is a great post! Yep, I’ve taken a few creative classes and yes, they always reiterate the show not tell rule! Your post is an excellent reminder about what works and what doesn’t help. I love the examples and could see some developing into short stories…particularly Kate and Tom! Also, you are right to point out that sometimes there is no better way than Telling, to show becomes verbose and pretentious. Just make those pancakes! I tend to use dialogue often for showing as well and feel this does work very well – a snapshot of the situation in just a few words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dialogue is usually a good solution to showing but not the only one, and it can be misused. There has to be context to accompany dialogue so it makes sense. Also, dialogue alone doesn’t provide character point of view which might be kept private from other characters in the scene, but can be revealed to readers through narration. Capable writers use all elements effectively. Thanks for your comments, Annika, and the suggestion about Kate and Tom.

      And I edited as requested – I’ve made the same mistake. Oh that “post” button – such a commitment!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My university asked what major I wanted. I replied “creative writing”. They said they didn’t have that major, but I could do English lit. I didn’t want to ape my older brother, so I declined English lit, and went with my second choice, philosophy, instead.

    I mainly write personal reflections laced with stories of people I’ve known, but I’m thinking if I can internalize your lessons here, and practice the hell out of them, I might yet pop a few balloons in the shooting galleries of creative writing. Thank you so much for these lessons, Sharon! I’m bookmarking this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Paul, I’m very flattered, and pleased you found the post helpful. I like your comment: I might yet pop a few balloons in the shooting galleries of creative writing. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. definitely a great reminder – especially love how you show us! – & now I know what pluperfect means 🙂


  9. Winer’s The Marriage Artist sounds marvelous. Such an inciteful quote. I must write it down before I forget it.


  10. I had to get over telling too much stage direction, although I didn’t have a problem with showing instead of telling everything important, like character. I just showed everything at first.

    Then I sat back and scratched my head at the end of the first draft. I knew there was a story in there somewhere. I just had to figure how to get it out.

    I cut over a third of my first novels. Yours is a much better solution. 🙂


    • Cathleen, I cut about 100 pages from my first novel and though I still love what I wrote in its final form, have decided not to pursue publication of it, at least not at this time. So much for about ten years’ work. Just saying, it was a learning experience for me also – way too much of everything. Glad I could be of help to you.


  11. I’m a journalist in heart and practice! Blogging does give me the creativity and outlet for out of the box thinking and writing. I’m working on a non-fiction book tentatively titled “No Excuses Fitness for any age,” so that is my summer project. I wish i had more time, though, but I learn so much from other bloggers! I’m looking forward to reading more about your creative processes 🙂


    • I need your book, Terri. I am so horribly out of shape and I need to find a way to get healthy and fit. Thanks for your upcoming book.

      Thank you for the follow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m hoping to start a short newsletter as I write this to get a few interested subscribers. I plan to share some easy fitness tips. Now that I am done teaching for the semester, I finally have time to get this project started. Even if you start walking 10 minutes a day for now will be a help. Have a wonderful Mother’s day weekend 😀


      • I know – I had been walking about 50 – 60 minutes a day, but then had the accident that left my arm nearly ruined. I need to get back on track and finally realized I can’t start again at 50 minutes – going to aim for 25 – 30. Looking forward to your new project!


      • Wow, so sorry to hear, Sharon. Start small, I had to restart almost 2 yrs ago when I re-injured my knee. Yay, aging!


      • Boo klutziness – 😀 But my arm is healing, just not a lot of strength yet.

        Liked by 1 person

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