Show vs Tell: Examples

Sometimes real examples of writing issues are easier to understand than lengthy, complicated explanations. In this new series (see the list of “Real Examples of Various Writing Issues“) you’ll see various real-life writing problems and suggested solutions.

“ ‘Don’t worry too much about it, life has a way of sorting things out,’ Sarah said, trying to calm me down.”
–> Did she try to calm you down just by what she said? Or did she do anything, like hug you or hold your hand or something? Adding actions will make the story more “alive” and help your reader relate.

“As I was sitting in a comfortable seat at the back of the bus, looking out the window, it didn’t take long before my worries filled my head again.”
–> What do you see as you look out the window? What kind of a scene is it? What is happening? How does it affect you? Did it make you worry more? How?

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it as the miles went by on the train. I didn’t want to go back home and deal with any of this anymore.”
–> What happens while you’re thinking about this? How does your body feel? Do you toss and turn? Do you stay awake all night until the day begins to dawn? Or? What is “happening”? What do you smell, eat, feel, hear, or whatever that in some way creates a picture for your readers so they can experience what you’re thinking and feeling? What specific thoughts are you having? Do you share your thoughts with someone else on the train (dialogue)?

“Little did I know our tumultuous ten-year relationship would end so tragically.”
–> This paragraph was overall very positive and active. Then you “dropped” this last sentence in—and I am wondering if you should save the “tragedy” for later–as an act, not as just a “telling/foreshadowing” at this point. Don’t give away too much to your readers. Hold their attention and interest, and surprise them later.

“The moral of the story: Don’t listen to your counsellor.”
–> You might want to leave this off. You’ve told a great story about your adventure, which definitely didn’t turn out as your counsellor said it would. Best to let people draw their own conclusions about the counsellor. Always a good idea to let people draw their own conclusions; don’t tell them everything. Let the action of the story speak for itself.

Response to a long introductory description of an important female character:
–> Obviously she’s a beautiful young woman. But may I suggest that you might be over-describing her? The description seems to be a bit over-the-top and even clichéd: attractive young woman … bemused smile … boyfriend envy of onlookers … hazel eyes widened … white, even teeth … full smile that slays men … silken black hair… ermine collar … and so on and on … I suggest you choose at most two or three descriptive points (none of them over-described, just enough to key the reader into the fact that she’s attractive and well-off). Then you can add in some of the other details (if really needed) as you have her act and speak later on, as well as through the comments and actions of the young men observing her. Build her character up more slowly, and she will be more interesting. But put it all up front as a long, rambling description, and the reader may get a picture of a pretty yet rich and shallow girl—which I’m sure you don’t want to happen. Character description should be developed as much as possible through the actions and speech of the character (and the reactions of others to her), rather than through direct description and commentary by the narrator. More action, less description.

“He drank again, looking at the contents of his cup appreciatively.”
–> I know you’re emphasizing his love of alcohol. But maybe try to stick to the action rather than using adverbs like “appreciatively”. Perhaps: “He drank again, deeply, gazing at the golden liquid in his cup.”

“This is crazy!” James exploded once again. He’d lost patience.
–> It’s not necessary to say “He’d lost patience.” The previous words SHOW this effectively. Adding this “telling explanation” is redundant, slows down the pace, and destroys the tension.

“At that moment I was scared out of my mind. I went upstairs, thinking it was my best shot.”
–> Show us (rather than telling us) how scared you are. Leave out the first sentence, and act out your fear–for example, race (or tiptoe if you don’t want to get caught) up the stairs, have sweat (or chills or other signs of fear) on your body, use gestures which indicate fear, etc. Use strong verbs that show your fear and build tension.

“He took my backpack, always a gentleman.”
–> SHOW him doing this in a gentlemanly way, don’t just tell about it. Perhaps: “He reached his arm around me, gently lifted my backpack from my shoulders, and slung it over his own shoulder, then stretched out his arm and indicated for me to go first.”

“Jared told Maria to stay with Sandy, and the two boys went to take a closer look.”
–> Maybe write this more conversationally, with dialogue and action? For example:
Jared looked at Allen, eyebrows raised. “We’d better check it out again and decide what to do,” he said. “Erin, can you stay here with Sandy while we take a closer look?” / “Sure,” Erin said. She wrapped her arm around her friend, who was trembling. / The boys rose and headed over to the clump of grass, then stopped and stared. The body had disappeared.

And finally … some overall advice to a writer who has used a lot of dialogue to “show” but has failed to use other “senses” and “actions” as well to develop the story:
–> It is good that you are using dialogue—speech does make the story more real and believable. But can you add other senses, too? Maybe you can mention the expression on his face, the tone of his voice, the way he looks up at you, things like that. Don’t forget to include smells/scents (they are a very strong way memories are brought back to us, and including them in the story will certainly have an effect on your reader, as well). Also tastes—try to remember and write about times when flavours were involved. What about things you hear—like maybe a bird singing or the kettle boiling or a stream burbling along. Including those kinds of sense details really makes a difference. When you’re talking about your relationship, can you show more about it? When you’re watching TV are you sitting close together, even cuddling—or are you sitting at opposite ends of the couch or even on separate chairs? Does he have a favourite way to stroke your face; how do you physically show love? Does he buy you flowers? Do you have favourite activities you do together? How do you show him your love and loyalty? You talk a lot about his love and your love, but you need to “show” it to us—including ways you also are “apart.” And the way he “controls” the relationship—can you give us examples, pictures of that happening?

Your turn!

Did reading the above examples help you understand the need to self-edit carefully, to ask a beta-reader to check your writing, and to think carefully whether you should use showing or telling? What did you learn from these examples?

2 thoughts on “Show vs Tell: Examples

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