Show and Tell

copyright 1999, Karen A. Hertzberg

If you're a reader, you certainly know what you like. If you're a writer, you not only have to know what you like, but why it works. That's not always an easy task.

What's the difference between these two writing samples?


Jack looked at the injured puppy as it came onto the porch and was overwhelmed with
sympathy.  He was afraid to pick it up because he knew injured animals often bite.


The puppy hobbled onto the porch, its head hanging down, eyes averted.  Its coat was caked with dirt and dried blood. Jack reached for the shivering animal.  His throat
constricted and tears stung his eyes as he fought the overwhelming urge to sweep the
little dog into his arms. He knew better. Injured animals often bite.

Okay, here's one similarity; neither sample is great literature.  But aside from that, which sample do you like best?  Which sample gives us imagery and action?  The answer is clearly sample two, but why?

Sample one states very succinctly that something happened, and describes how our character, Jack, felt about it.  It certainly doesn't waste any words.  Sample two doesn't just talk about what's happening and how our character feels, it vividly demonstrates it by painting a word picture for us.  Sample One is "telling".  Sample Two is "showing".

Ask any editor and they will probably admit that the difference between an amateur
writer and a seasoned one usually boils down to show and tell.  Paragraphs like Sample One scream a writer's inexperience to the rooftops.  Veteran writers don't "tell", at least not when they have the opportunity to "show".

So, how do we learn to show, instead of tell?  Read through your writing with the

distinct purpose of looking for "show, don't tell" problems.  You're bound to find examples. Sometimes, telling can't be avoided.  There will be times when you just have to explain something succinctly, and doing otherwise would make your prose seem wordy and pretentious."  More often than not, however, telling can be avoided.

When you find yourself using words that define a character's emotions in your writing--as in "he felt happy"--you can be almost certain you're doing some telling. You'll have to admit, there's a big difference in the amount of impact your writing will have when, as opposed to saying "he felt happy" you say, "He leapt from his chair, grinning like a lunatic, and did a little jig on the throw rug."  Either describes a happy man, but the second is vibrant and gives us a very concrete image of just HOW happy this fellow is.

Another indicator of telling is passive or weak voice.  Passive verbs are those "to be"
verbs like "was" and "were" and "are".  Weak verbs are those that don't say anything
with any amount of punch, like "went" and "felt" and "looked".  As in:

The cat went away vs.
The cat bolted out of the yard

It looked like rain vs.
Heavy clouds hung in the darkening sky.

He felt angry vs.
He punched a hole in the wall.

Watch out for adverbs, too.  "He felt VERY angry" isn't any better than "He felt angry",
and it's still telling.  "He punched a hole in the wall" really doesn't leave us guessing
how angry this character was.

Remember when you were in school and you'd have Show and Tell?  Remember the
popular kid who got up in front of class and told everybody how he spent his Summer
with his family at the beach looking for seashells and blah, blah, blah, blah?  Remember the geek with the tape on his glasses who didn't ramble on about the beach, but brought an actual shark's tooth to pass around the classroom?  Okay honestly, peer politics aside, which presentation did YOU like better?

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