Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writers, Show Don’t Tell

by Susan F Craft

I believe our primary goal as novelists is to give our readers a powerful experience and to entertain them. As Christian writers, especially, we must strive for excellence.

One tool for reaching excellence is something most authors have heard before – in your writing, you should “show, not tell.”

Showing creates mental pictures in the reader’s mind. When readers get a clear picture, they are more engaged in the writer’s story.

Writers reveal their characters through several means:
  • What they say…
  • What they think or feel…
  • What they do….
  • Description…
  • What the other characters say about them…
  • How other characters react to them…

1. Use Dialogue
Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene; instead being told how a character feels, the reader can hear it for themselves.
(Instead of: “I love you,” she crooned. 
Write: “I love you,” she said, cupping her hands around his cheeks and caressing his bottom lip with her thumb.)

But, watch your dialogue attributes. It’s quite all right to use “said.”

2. Use Sensory Language
In order for readers to fully experience what you’re writing about, use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

Sight—is the most important sense to engage in good creative writing. You must paint pictures for your readers. A good fiction novel makes them feel as if they’ve literally stepped into another world. Words let people see what doesn’t even exist.

Smell—is the most nostalgic of the senses. Without using a lot of words, smell can evoke memories and is a useful way of getting your characters to remember an event from the past in the form of a flashback.
  • The smell of burning leaves and pine straw.
  • The sour smell of clothes left too long in the washing machine.
  • The stench of a van load of teenage football players returning home from a game.

Sound—is the way of adding to your scene as if adding soundtrack to a movie. Few settings are silent, but if they are, describe the absence of sound. 
Onomatopoeias are useful – hiss, crackle, jangle, tap-tap, click. 

Taste –is evoked when characters are eating and drinking, or actively using their mouths and tongues. 
Tasting the first falling snowflakes on the tip of our tongue.
The shock of unfamiliar toothpaste.

Touch - can be painful or pleasurable or help describe the person or place
Turning a pillow over during a hot, muggy night and feeling the coolness.
The smoothness of 1000 thread count cotton sheets.
Touching a curling iron to your forehead.
A cold, sweaty handshake.

3. Use Active Verbs

4. Be Descriptive
How often in your early learning were you taught to use adjectives and adverbs, and then, later on, you were told to get rid of the adverbs?  (Adverbs are great words, used sparingly.) Being descriptive is more than just inserting a string of descriptive words. It’s carefully choosing the right words to convey your meaning. Paint pictures with specific words or groups of words.

You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented artist, or a spoiled little rich girl. We won't believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to let us see your character act out, to let us feel.

Warning: when using description, don’t overdo it and don’t give the details all at once. Otherwise, you can end up with a “police blotter” description.
He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.

5. Be Specific
Specificity will fill in the gaps from telling and bring life to scenes.

Instead of writing, “I had never felt anything like it before in my entire life,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader.       

Tell: Nathan looked exhausted.
Show: Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes.

Tell: It was a dark and stormy night.
Show: The wind tore at the trees, flinging icy rain from the pitch-black sky.

Tell: Mary wasn't a natural mother and she found the children very trying.
Show: Mary couldn't believe it could be this much work. Couldn't they leave her alone for five minutes to read the paper? She'd put the cartoons on for them and given them crayons and paper, but apparently that wasn't enough -- they still wanted her.

Half Show-Half Tell
Sometimes you can do a half show-half tell. This is where you get a character to describe another person. Let them do the telling instead of you.

"I'd be careful around him, if I were you. He's a sly one that one, he can't be trusted."

Because a character has said it, it somehow makes it appear more real to the reader than if we'd just written "Tom was sly and couldn't be trusted."

When to Tell, Not Show!
All this doesn’t mean that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy, and it doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show.

If you show don't tell all the time, your word count will be way too high, and in a novel the reader may get bored of all the padding. No one wants to be able to see every part of every building or every scene that clearly.

So you tell the things that are of no real importance to the story but are necessary to move the story along:
"The doorbell rang."
Unless there’s a reason the reader must know the sound of the doorbell, this sentence is fine. 
But what if the doorbell is significant?
(When Clara pressed the doorbell of the Dallas mansion, the first fourteen notes of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” resonated through the intercom. Clara was still giggling when the door swung open, and there stood Dixie Lee Houston herself.)

(The doorbell rang once.  Then twice. Then five times in succession like a persistent woodpecker furtively tapping on vinyl siding.)

"Mary picked up the remote control and turned the television back on."
Again, we don't need to know anything more about these things, so telling will suffice.

Write first; let your creativity take over; allow the thoughts to flow; never edit as you go.  Once the words are on paper, then go back and check for show, don’t tell. 

Pray about and for what you are writing. Ask yourself, will this glorify his name? Will it lift up your readers? Will he or she be a better person for having read what you’ve written? Will you handle rejection with grace and accolades with humility?

Most importantly, have you done your absolute best to honor the absolute sacrifice that was made for you?

I gathered information from sites including:

Susan F. Craft authored the SIBA Award-winning Revolutionary War novel, The Chamomile. The two sequels to The Chamomile, entitled Laurel and Cassia will be released January 12, 2015, and September 14, 2015, by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas.  She is represented by Linda S. Glaz, Hartline Literary Agency.Visit Susan on her website:


  1. Good reminders, Susan!
    Hugs, Elva Cobb Martin, President ACFW-SC

  2. PS I am also tweeting this and sharing on FB. Hope all our readers will do the same!

  3. What great tips, Susan! Thanks so much for compiling these recommendations and examples. It's an excellent checklist for revisions.

  4. Thank you Susan! This is the best article I've read about showing vs. telling. It makes it clear.

  5. I appreciate the examples. Thanks for taking the time to compile them.