How to Change Telling into Showing

show don't tellKath here. Please welcome guest poster Jessica Bell to WU today. Jessica is the author of Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing. We asked her to guest with us today to share her best tips for this crucial craft skill.

Jessica Bell addresses one of the most common yet elusive pieces of writing advice–show, don’t tell–in a uniquely user-friendly and effective way: by example. By studying the sixteen scenes she converts from “telling” into “showing,” not only will you clearly understand the difference; you will be inspired by her vivid imagery and dialogue to pour through your drafts and do the same.” ~Jenny Baranick, College English Teacher, Author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares

Jessica is  an Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, who also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca. Follow her on Twitter @MsBessieBell, Facebook, or on her blog www.thealliterativeallomorph.blogspot.com.

Take it away, Jessica!

When I first started to write fiction and send my manuscripts out for feedback, the first and most frequent thing my readers said was SHOW, DON’T TELL.

In theory, I understood what SHOW, DON’t TELL meant. But it was almost impossible for me to put it into practice after comments such as, “Why don’t you show your character sitting in a café getting frustrated with her friend? I’d really like to see that happening, rather than just being told it’s happening. It would give us a lot more insight into their characters.” 

Okay. So how do I go about that? I’m not sure I understand how you can’t see it happening when I’m telling you it’s happening. What’s the difference?

I never truly understood the difference until I’d accomplished it by accident one day. My motivation was that I needed to increase the word count in one of my manuscripts. I had a 60,000 word novel that needed 80,000–100,000 before I could submit it to agents.

I combed through my manuscript, marking scenes I thought I could expand. By the time I’d finished reworking the first scene, the concept clicked. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel.

So let me give you an example.

Here’s a scene that is completely telling:

Tamara and Fran are having lunch at a café. They are seated outdoors. But it seems useless meeting at all when Fran is so flighty. It’s ridiculously frustrating talking to Fran when she’s like this—off in her own little world. She doesn’t even acknowledge what’s being said when Tamara raises her voice! Perhaps she’s in love.

Okay, can you identify which things we could be showing here?

What I think we can show here are the following attributes:

flightiness

frustration

(be) in love

self-importance

So with this in mind, let’s bring this scene to life with some showing:

“Can you pass the salt?” Tamara holds out her hand.

“Hmm?” Fran hums and looks across the road at the kids playing Frisbee.

“Hun? The salt.” Tamara glances at the kids, screws up her nose, and contorts her mouth to the left.

“Oh. Right.” Fran passes the ketchup.

Tamara groans and reaches across the table for the salt. As she leans over her plate, her blouse dips into the mayonnaise.

“Crap! I need a serviette.” Tamara points at the napkin holder. Francine is resting her chin in her palm, squinting at the sky, giggling to herself.

Christ.

“Fran!” Tamara bangs her fist on the table. Crockery rattles.

Fran’s smile fades as she jolts upright. “Huh? What’s wrong?”

Tamara stands, scrapes her seat backward, reaches for a serviette, and shakes her head. “I can’t count on you for even the simplest of things, can I?”

Francine blinks.

Tamara dips a serviette into her glass of soda and rubs it on her breast. “So. Who’s the guy?”

“Tammie?” Francine sighs. “Have you ever wondered why we only see yellow butterflies in this area of town?”

What do you think? Would you have written something similar? Can you pinpoint how I’ve shown these specific attributes? Tell me in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    This was great. I liked the part about the butterflies, Fran is clearly in another realm.
    Using animate or inanimate objects and the character’s perception of them is a great way to set a tone.
    One trait I use in my MS is the heroine’s habit of twisting the fabric of her sleeve or skirt. I use it sparingly, saving it for when she is under great duress. By the end of the novel, when the hero sees her grab her sleeve, and begin twisting the cotton, all he says is “Oh no.” The level of tension is already set and the reader knows it without being told.

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  2. Linda Pennell says

    Good points, Jessica! The art of knowing when to show and when to tell seems so simple at first, yet using the two skillfully creates the difference between good writing and truly great writing. Your example makes that difference very clear.

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  3. says

    Fran is zoning in and out of the conversation with Tamara, passing ketchup instead of salt, talking about yellow butterflies. This represents the flightiness.

    Tamara’s reactions to not having Fran’s attention and attacking her food with her blouse are some examples of showing frustration.
    I can clearly see the difference. It’s easier to connect to the conversation version than the summarized version. Like you, I’ve heard of the concept, but now I feel like I have a better understanding of it (just a little better probably). It also helps me to expand my word count from 50k to 80k.

    And again, “My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel.” I want that too. It’s one of my writing goals that I want to master.

    Thank you for your post- Jessica Bell

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  4. says

    I think you have shown and told the difference between showing and telling well Jessica. I have always found it an interesting distinction but I have come to see it as more to do with ‘fashion’ and ‘taste’ than what is right or what is wrong about writing.

    I prefer your telling example to your showing example just as I am sure others would say the opposite. I write in a ‘telling’ style and I like to read books written in that style. I also love movies with have a voice-over, where there is a narrator, telling, or providing additional information about what is going on.

    And of course we never talk about ‘telling a story’ not about ‘showing a story.’

    Some of our greatest writers did not show they told and some of them, like Proust in great and lengthy detail. So I suspect, in that way of the world and writing, while ‘showing’ has become the modern mantra, that may change again.

    Perhaps the best writing does both it is just that we are not aware of being ‘told’ or being ‘shown’ we are just entertained and engrossed.

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  5. says

    I have to replace my keyboard – sticking keys. Herewith corrections:

    I also love movies which have a voice-over, where there is a narrator, telling, or providing additional information about what is going on.

    And of course we talk about ‘telling a story’ not about ‘showing a story.’

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  6. says

    Loved the example, Jessica. It really shows the difference. So excited for your book. Everyone has nothing but good things to say about it. Thanks for your awesome guest post.

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  7. says

    I really felt Tamara’s frustration and I can def understand that feeling of new love. The first scene didn’t clue me in that two peple were there. I thought Tamara was waiting for Fran. The second engaged me, made me wonder what’s wrong with Tamara.
    Good post!

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  8. Ronda Roaring says

    I certainly agree that stories are usually more interesting when “shown,” however, I have two problems with this concept. The first is that, unless the author is great a dialogue, it may not work. The second is that the author leaves a lot up to the interpretation to the reader. A good example of the reader not getting the most obvious parts of a novel was recently satarized in the Onion re a student’s interpretation of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There have been times, not a lot, I’m happy to say, when beta readers will misinterpret what I have written, and when I explain it to them, they respond with, “Well, why didn’t you just say that.” So I think the whole show and tell business is up to interpretation.

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  9. says

    Thanks for this example. It’s a lot easier to grasp the concept when shown how it works=) And I’ve always found showing requires a higher word count than telling. Thanks again.

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  10. says

    But two counterweights come to mind immediately: John Steinbeck and Jonathan Franzen. Here’s some excellent telling by Franzen:

    “But Lalitha was with him every step of the way. She ratified his vision and shared his sense of urgency. In his initial interview with her, she’d told him about the family trip she’d taken back to West Bengal when she was fourteen. She’d been exactly the right age to be not merely saddened and horrified but disgusted by the density and suffering and squalor of human life in Calcutta…” <iFreedom,, 315. Franzen takes it overboard, but I get it that telling is not a crime worthy of a red-lined smack-down.

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    • says

      It would be interesting to divide our great writers into ‘tellers’ and ‘showers’ and I suspect the difference would be related to the times in which they wrote, but I could be wrong.

      I also wonder if there is any cultural inclination – are British writers more inclined to tell and American to show? I am not saying that is the case, but an interesting study all the same.

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  11. says

    I’m being frequently told by my critters that my characters aren’t three-dimensional because I do a lot of telling instead of showing. It gets pretty annoying and frustrating at times, especially because they can see this repeating in my writing, but they can’t give actual practical advice on how to fix my issues. This article shed some light on my problem, though I’m still not certain how to put it into practice with some scenes. I guess I need my own AHA moment to figure it out. Nevertheless, thank you very much for the example. I’ll follow your advice about finding the right attributes to develop a scene. I think that might be the key to showing vs telling. Thank you!

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  12. says

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for chiming in. A lot of you have some great points. And I totally agree that telling is acceptable too. The key, I find (with my own writing) is to find a good balance. I actually make a point to say this in the introduction of my book, that you don’t need to show all the time. I didn’t write this article to tell you that you MUST SHOW. The point was to show writers how it is done if that is what they want to do. Like all rules, they are meant to be broken and experimented with. Nothing is set in stone. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t try our hand at different techniques to strengthen out writing.

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  13. says

    Well done. This is something I constantly encounter in my editing. I’ll be posting a link to this post on my blog, Flogging the Quill. Thanks.

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  14. says

    You definitely made that scene come to life. I had the same problem when I first began writing. I’m editing an omniscient YA, and the same tell has cropped up. Guess having so many characters’ heads to keep track of kept me in their heads way too much!

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