On Writing: Show and Tell


I read a fair amount of novels. Not a huge amount, but quite a few. One thing I wish more authors would do is show and not tell. I’m not talking about long conversations filling in plot points; I’m talking about internal monologues. Paragraphs and paragraphs “inside” the main character’s head (and everyone else’s, in some books). I don’t like them. It clogs down the narrative and I’m less of a romantic and more of a “get to the point” kind of girl.

Telling too much assumes that your reader can’t make a connection between an action and a thought process. Look at visual storytelling– if a character’s face contorts into rage, he punches a wall or morphs into the Hulk, you know he’s angry. He doesn’t need to shout, “I’m really angry about this!” along with it. The action reveals the emotion. If you try to verbally explain the emotion over the scene, it ruins it, because it’s unnecessary. You may as well depict a girl surrounded by sixteen strawberry shakes, with another drained five glasses on the counter with pink residue on them, put strawberry on her upper lip, and have her pronounce happily, “I love strawberry shakes!”

Um… we noticed.

Instead of a lengthy monologue about approaching the girl the hero likes, he should show nervousness in how he walks toward her and hesitates. Indecision flickers across his face and he wipes his hand on his jeans. Then he either squares his jaw and takes the final five steps or ducks his head and retreats. See? No internal dialogue, but you still know how much he likes her, how shy he is about talking to her, and whether he’s mustered his courage or is defeated by self doubt. Which is more fun to read – the action, or…

Gosh, I really want to go up to her. But what if Jim’s right, and she doesn’t like me? I don’t know why she would like me, I’m just the local geek. I probably should play it cool, but… oh, no! Now my hands are sweating. That’s gross. Maybe I should walk away. I really ought to just turn around and leave.

Some of you ornery readers will say the latter, but for me, it’s the former. I don’t need assistance in discerning the state of mind of an action-driven character.

Each author’s style is different; some will use more description or internal thoughts than others, but it’s important not to have too much internal focus. It slows the pacing of a book and makes it longer than it needs to be. I’d much rather read a quick, action and character-driven story that never lags than an epic with too many words.

The next time you sit down to write, show… don’t tell. It’s fun.

5 thoughts on “On Writing: Show and Tell

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  1. Fantastic entry once again! 😉

    Hmm, I’ve been debating this for a while actually. I often find myself feeling like grabbing a big red marker and writing “SHOW DON’T TELL YOU NIMWIT!!!” over some stuff I read (except…it’s usually a library book, so I can’t :P) Then again, I feel the latter can work, in moderation, if you want to “sell” the idea the novel is being narrated by a person of a certain age, background etc; .

    I suspect another reason some writers do telling vs showing is because the signs of nervousness, sadness, or other moods can vary slightly from person to person, or be restrained in certain situations. I actually found myself thinking about this with your recent ENTP/ENTJ post over on tumblr. If I maintain eye contact with someone, it’s because like them, I want to continue talking with them, even if the subject we’re talking about is difficult, or painful, gazing into their eyes lets them know I’m “there” for them….right?

    But with some people I know it’s just the opposite, that too much eye contact can make them feel uncomfortable, scrutinized. They find themselves glancing away, or trying to find something in the background to stare at instead. (I know one person who joked this probably makes her look “shifty-eyed) Ideally one tries to compromise, making eye contact, but only briefly, and then adjusting one’s behavior from there. (In fact Mom says people locking eyes with her makes her feel like she’s being interrogated 😛 )

    But–but–what if I write a scene where a new acquaintance refuses to meet my hero’s eyes–or does the opposite and seems to be staring right through him–and our hero isn’t sure if this is a sign hope or hostility–and this is a spy novel so it could be either! WHAT DO I DO??? *cough* Not that I waste countless hours agonizing over little details like these rather than forging ahead with my epic novel…

    Bookmarking this…I just looked over my bookmarks and realized nearly all the posts I bookmarked on your blog were writing tips! 😀 You write the best writing posts 😉

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      You should upgrade to Kindle. Then you can highlight and rant all you like, without ruining a book. (I’ve been reading a lot on mine recently and it was weird to go back to a paperback. I was like “… dude, I need a pen to highlight! And I’m not going to write in this book anyway! AGH.”)

      You know what? Put some internal dialogue in, but please, for the sake of my sanity, don’t have pages upon pages of it. I will cry if I encounter this.

      The act of NOT reacting can be a revealing statement in of itself, can’t it? I mean, think about when John asks Sherlock to be his best man, as his best friend. He stares. And stares. And stares more. He doesn’t blink. You can practically see “Sherlock.exe malfunctioning – rebooting started” in his face. It’s great. And it conveys in one stunned expression more than a thousand words.

      I find it hard to maintain steady eye contact – even with people I know really well. I just… can’t. Dominant Ti – always looking away or down, processing, searching, thinking. I prefer that quick look and shared joke, then to look elsewhere. I do it with my dad a lot – he gets my unspoken jokes. But yeah, not very happy with prolonged eye contact.

      What do you do? You could do as I do, and avoid any and all emotions whatsoever!

      Nah, you’ll figure it out. Stop nitpicking and worrying and write.!! 😉

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