the five W's of showing

1. What?

Show, don't tell. Or so I've heard. But what does that really mean?

It means that you, as the author, need to step out of your own voice--your own head--and step into your characters. You have to weave a story where your reader forgets that you exist.

2. When?

Actually, sometimes you shouldn't show. If you showed every painstaking detail, your story would get bogged down in trivialities. If you showed every step it took to go down the hallway, then your readers would get so bored that they'd burn your book just for fun.

Honestly this will do: He walked down the hall and entered the room next door.

But if every step was painful because your character just got beaten up or was going through rehabilitation after being paralyzed, then playing up the pain that courses through his body every time he steps on his right foot might actually add to the story.

Or maybe it adds suspense. Maybe the character thinks something's gonna jump out at him. Every step is going to make your reader lean forward in his seat. Slowing down the pace creates drama.

So ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it add to the plot?
  • Does it build the mood?
  • Does it develop characters?
  • Does it set the scene?
  • Does it draw your readers in?
  • Does it create tension?

3. Where?

Hook. Intensity. Push. 

That's what builds a scene. Makes a story spellbinding.

The hook is the opening line that makes a reader feel like he just HAS to read on. In Never Forget, I started with the line "'He's dead, Master." The read is filled with questions that they want answered. Who's dead? Who's the Master? Why is he called Master? Who's talking? Why is it so important to report that this person is dead? Will the Master be happy or upset?

Intensity is the body of the scene. This is where you show AND tell--the two are balanced based on just how intense you want the scene to be. Some scenes are just a 7 (mostly show with some telling) on a scale of 1 to 10, and other scenes are riveting 10's (all show). Others are 4's (mostly telling with some show). You never want to get as low as a 1, or your readers will just fall asleep.

No book can have 10's for every scene, or your readers will just get tired of the roller coaster ride. Then when you want them to feel the intensity, they're burned out. Or they don't believe you anymore. 

Sometimes, you need a slow-paced reaction scene, thoughtful, introspective. If it were a love story, your characters need to talk or cuddle rather than just have sex. And if it were an action-packed suspense, maybe your characters need to reflect on why everything is going wrong in their lives and what they want to do if they make it out of this alive.

The trick is to tell well when you have to. Here's an example of how to express emotion:

Showing: A cold tingle ran down my back. My stomach cramped. My hands shook. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead.

Telling well: I was scared shitless. If I had anything left, I would have crapped my pants right then.

In the first example, the reader experiences the sensations. In the second, the narrator just gets to the point and tells the reader how he's feeling. But he doesn't just say, in a monotone, "I was scared."

The push is leaving the scene at a point that the reader wants to turn the page. I found that many of my scenes/chapters ended on a low point: my character went to sleep. If I were to cut off the last paragraph or two, the scene ended in the midst of action--a high point--and the reader would want to move on. 

Ask yourself these questions:
  • How intense does this scene need to be?
  • How intense were the previous scenes? 
  • Would showing or telling better illustrate what I want?
  • Did I start with a hook?
  • Did I end with a push?

For more information, read James Scott Bell's books about Self-Editing or about Plot. You can read more about self editing in my review of Bell's book in my previous post.

4. Why?

Harry Potter was popular because--for 500+ pages--you stopped living in the boring world. You lived the character. You felt what Harry felt. You lived Harry's life. His frustrations were yours. And his triumphs. It's as though J.K. Rowlings went on vacation to some exotic destination and paid for your ticket to come along. So much better than getting the slide show presentation when she comes home, glowing with excitement. And you missed it all.

We read to get away from our boring lives. We want to be someone else for just a little while. We want to stop doing the same things that we do today--go to work, feed the kids, exercise because we are supposed to, watch TV. No, we want to be someone exciting who does something wonderful.

5. hoW?

Many times your first draft is a brain dump. It's more like a flushed out outline than anything worth reading. You are doing more telling than showing because you really just gotta put it on paper.

It's during the edit process that you go section by section, turning that tell into show. You determine your hook and your push and then work through the intensity throughout the middle.


We woke before dawn and saddled our horses. Jhon carried the map in his hand and gave the instructions on what to pack. He double checked the supplies and kept us moving at a quick pace. This had always been Papa’s job, and so it surprised me to see Papa defer to him. In the past, Papa always determined our route and planned the resources, but this morning, Papa asked Jhon what road we would take and what we would need to bring. Jhon moved with an assurance that I had never before seen in him, and at his hip, he carried a sword. The sword had no adornment upon the hilt or the scabbard. I had no way of judging the quality of the sword, but to me, it seemed as though that sword should have been there all along, as if he was born for this moment.


     "So did you decide which way we're going, boy?" Papa asked Jhon. I looked up at Papa in astonishment. That had always been Papa's job. Why was he asking Jhon? But Papa seemed oblivious to my surprise, as though it was natural for Jhon to be in charge.

     "Yes," Jhon said. "Rather than taking the main roads, we'll go on some of the country passes. It's a straighter shot, and we'll probably shave off a day or two of travel." Papa nodded approvingly.

     "And we have everything we need?"

     "Yes, but I will double check all the supplies just before we mount up."

     Papa smiled, "Good job, son." Jhon lifted his head a little straighter, and his face broke into a wide grin.

What's different?

  • More character development
  • You're in the story rather than in Barra's head
  • You get a stronger sense of Barra's surprise when Jhon takes the leadership
  • You see Jhon's pride at his father's words
  • You wonder about the relationship between Jhon and Papa


  1. Nice post Rita. Very succinct and well explained.

    Rudyard Kipling once wrote, though he was focusing on journalism:

    I have six litle serving men,
    Who taught me all I know.
    Their names are
    Who, what, where, when, why and how.


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