The Corner of His Mouth Twitched

I’ve been a member of a writer’s group for nearly a year (I’m not really good at celebrating anniversaries. Ask my husband).

During one of our first meetings our fearless, and of course published, leader said, “This is good, but you need to show. You do too much telling.”

I nodded, pretending I knew exactly what she was talking about. Wasn’t show-and-tell something my preschooler did every Friday? I had good intentions to google it when I got home, but as usual, life got in the way.

The year rolled by. I spent some time writing (not nearly enough) and a ton of time reading. Somehow a definition formed in my mind. I even highlighted some good examples of what I thought show-not-tell meant as I found it in novels.

It must have worked. This week I got an awesome compliment from my beta. Will you indulge me enough to let me paste it below?

“side note- you have an amazing talent for showing rather then telling the reader about your characters emotions – pointing out the mascara is tens times more powerful then just saying she felt like crap!”

Really? Me? Here’s the sentence she was referring to:

“I’m fine,” he used his thumbs to wipe away the mascara below her left eye and held it up so she could see it. “Are you okay?”

So I guess that’s what it’s supposed to look like. Clear as mud, right?

It’s okay, I found some way better examples online that I think will help.

From, “How to Show, Don’t Tell” :

Telling: Mary wasn’t a natural mother and she found the children very trying.

Showing: 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.

From, “Show, Don’t Tell”:

Telling: He sits on the couch holding his guitar.

Showing: His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants to let go.

Does it make more sense now?

A few of quick tips:
  • A great place to show is during dialogue. A lot of writer’s tell us when their character is being sarcastic, but word choice and bodily language should cue us in.
  • Vague doesn’t work. If a character has a strong emotion, say anger, then their fists should clench, their chest puff out, their jaws tighten, etc.
  • Use your reader’s senses. Do they taste the character’s bitter regret? Do the feel the chill of despair? Do the see the vibrant foliage of the trees?
  • Telling is still important. If you show all the time your word count will be through the roof! You just need to determine when its vital to show (usually emotionally charged situations).

Would some of you mind posting good examples of show-don’t-tell for the rest of us to read? Or your experience with this area?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thanks.

One Comment

  • wheresmypencil

    Show don’t tell is very important to keep in mind, but sometimes it’s best to tell. Learning when to use them is the hard part. I really enjoyed this, and your examples. Great reminder and advice. ;p

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