Tattletale Writing

"Show, don't tell," is the advice tossed to new writers like dirty bath towels.

In fact, when I was a new writer, I scattered that same advice to other new writers. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Boy, was I clueless.

Personally, I think the terms "show" and "tell" confuse and muddle the issue. What does it mean? How do you do it? Showing dramatizes. Telling summarizes. Showing takes me on vacation with you; I can taste it, smell it, breathe it. Telling gives me the slide show presentation; I yawn and fall asleep.

Avoid passive and weak verbs.
Verbs, such as was, were, had, would, seeemed, and appeared, clue you into your telling passages.

Example of Passive Verbs: The man was walking down the hall. Marie was hiding in the closet. She was frightened.

Example of Strong Verbs: Footsteps thudded in the hall. Shaking, Marie shrank deeper into the darkness of the closet.

What did I change? The verbs. I focused on stronger verb choices (thudded, shaking, shrank) instead of weaker, passive ones (was walking, was hiding, was frightened). To support stronger verbs, the patterns of my sentences had to also change, allowing for more fluid wording throughout the paragraph.

Sink deeper into your character.
The deeper you go into your character's point of view (POV), the more sensation your readers will feel.

Example from above: Footsteps thudded in the hall. Shaking, Marie shrank deeper into the darkness of the closet.

Example with POV sensations added: Footsteps thudded in the hall, echoing in Marie's ears like hammers striking her heart. Cold sweat dripped down her back and chilled her to the bone. Shaking, Marie shrank deeper into the darkness of the closet. She held her breath. If only he would pass her by...

I added the physical sensations and the internal dialog that went with the actions. No longer do the footsteps just thud; now they vibrate off the page.

Watch flashbacks and time speeds.
You don't want to put all of your back history in the first paragraphs. Often, it's better to intersperse flashbacks with real-time events. However, flashbacks can also be sink holes, tugging your prose down into the miry muck.

The book Princess Ben was a cute story, but I couldn't stand reading it. The entire story from beginning to end was a flashback. Nothing was told as if it was currently being experienced. There was a lot of "This had happened, and I should have done this. But I didn't, so I got in a lot of trouble."

The word "had" pulled the story out of the real-time feel and annoyed the hell out of me. Another word that does this is "would." Rather than a flashback, it's a time speed word. It's used to describe many days as one event. "When he got home from work, he would hug, then get a beer, and plop in front of the tube." It's an every day event.

Too much of either--or worse, both--and your story has problems.

Cut extraneous words.
We all have them--words or phrases we overuse or don't need. The more we have, the heavier the story. Kinda like fat. I discovered that I had a tendency to say "started" frequently. "He started to run" or "he started to say" instead of "he ran" or "he said."

Other words I overused: just, all, every, saw, looked, heard. Adverbs are especially bad. They don't often add much to the story, but they fall in so easily. Yet, without them, they make for a cleaner story.

How do learn your word weaknesses? You find quality editors, friends who also seek to be better writers, and you edit stories for others. The practice of cutting through the writing of others and of reviewing of what other people caught in your writing opens your eyes.

Tell well, advised Elizabeth Lyon in the book Manuscript Makeover.
Dramatize every stroke of a hairbrush, every butt wipe, every cloud in the sky, every step down the corridor, and you move from great to ridiculous. If the action has no relevance to the story, then summarize and move on. The trick is to tell well by adding personality and intersperse your telling with showing.


I was scared shitless. (Telling, yes, but the short-and-to-the-point approach makes it refreshing.)

Oh, I am sooo scared. I think I'll pee my pants now. (The passage is telling, but the sarcasm adds a layer of personality to it.)

Scared, I screamed like a banshee. ("Scared" tells; "screamed" shows.)

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

How about you? Do you show or do you tell?

Share something you've written that shows or tells well.


  1. Hi Rita,
    I love your article on 'show,not tell'. I also used the word frequency finder that Carlos directed us to when I looked for overused words in 'Elder Cares'.

  2. Nicely done, Rita. I think you've explained it rather well.

  3. Very nicely done. Last time you proof read for me, you pointed out one little sentence that we all missed on previous reads. It went like this: "He got ready". As you pointed out, how did he got ready? What actions he took? A little example of telling instead of showing, but I learned a lot from it.

  4. Nice post, Rita. I loved how you also 'showed' rather than 'told' everyone the difference between the two. Very clear and very helpful.

  5. Thanks for this Rita. I know this is one of the biggest flaws my writing has and this will help me be able to identify it better, maybe not as I'm writing it but most definitely during editting.

    If I ever need help with this might have set yourself up for some emails ;)


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