What Does THAT Mean - Show, don't Tell? by Donna

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

Fantastic week last week on the topic of blogging. Thanks to Lia for sharing a thought provoking post on an internet hiatus. I've continued thinking about this a lot this week and am seriously wondering if it's something I can do with my regular day job. Very scary, yet completely tantalizing. I know it would have a huge impact on my writing time for Book Two.

More good news from last week. SKINNY will be featured on the YA Book Buzz Panel for BEA. They only select five new releases, so it is an incredible honor. "There is no question that books featured on these panels are the ones that people will be talking about. Join the editors of these books as they share their excitement and passion for some of the Fall's biggest potential breakout releases." And, yes, I get to attend and sign ARCs! So, if you're at BEA, please come by and say hello.

Now, to this week's topic... Have you ever had a critique of something you've written, received the feedback (in writing or in person)... and returned to your desk all ready to dig in to the manuscript and thought... What does THAT mean? Well, this week the Muses try to decipher some commonly issued phrases from critique sessions.

My choice is the very basic (and often used): "SHOW, DON'T TELL."

The advice to "Show, don't tell" reminds me of those weird pictures from a few years ago where you were supposed to see something in the image if you stared at it long enough. Evidently some people (not me) saw hidden designs. Receiving a critique to "show, not tell" can sometimes feel just as obtuse. What does that mean? Is it ever okay to tell? When? HOW do I show?

The best place to begin might be from the negative side. If you get used to identifying a "telling" voice in a manuscript, then it's almost like a light bulb comes on when you see it. And, as is always the case, it's always easier to identify in other people's writing than in your own.

But you can't ALWAYS show. According to James Scott Bell, "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted." According to Orson Scott Card and others, "showing" is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes. The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.

So, if "Show, Don't Tell" is something you hear from a critique, here are a few resources and exercises to help:

Show,Don't Tell worksheet

Figurative Language Examples


Congrats on the BEA Buzz panel...I'll be there, so I'll have to come by and check it out.

As for show don't tell, I like to think of it as on a continuum...from too telling to over showing, with many degrees in between.

Sometimes less is more...like, some dramatic dialogue can stand on it's own...and sometimes the simplest thing can be shown instead of told, with the same number or (or even less)words.

ex: "I walked inside for another dreaded day of school" vs. "Enter school. Hell on repeat."

Sure, voice is part of the difference here, but voice (IMO) is part of what "shows" your story vs "telling" it. So, in that way, it's almost always better to show. than tell.

Sorry for all the typos in my previous comment...I feel like I'm still trying to wake up this morning.

Love the examples, Jennifer, and I look forward to seeing you at BEA!

This is a very good point. I know that with some action scenes, the additional showing can slow things down and instead of a firecracker scene, it's an undersired slo-mo moment. "Show, don't tell" as needed. Add pinches when necessary.

Ah, I love this explanation! Omniscient pov is an innately 'telling' point of view, so your explanation from Orson Scott Card that "showing is essentially about making scenes vivid" is very helpful in understanding how to apply that to omniscient scenes, too.

Most of the books I've read my whole life have been older, so I'm used to books that open with a bit of expository narrative set-up and directly telling the reader important, establishing information early on. I agree that there can be too much direct telling, but sometimes just coming out with it is more effective and to the point than using excess verbiage to convey the same information and making us guess. I think there's too much emphasis, among certain people, on ONLY showing nowadays, even when it fits with the writer's voice, the type of story, or just the need to convey information in a succinct way or not leave the reader guessing about an important detail for the next five chapters.

Congratulations on BEA! That's so exciting!

As for showing vs. telling...it is a hard balance, and one I'm often struggling with. I'll check out those exercises, thank you!

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