Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Deadly Sin Two: Telling Not Showing

by Sandy Tritt

The First Rule of Writing is Show, Don’t Tell. That sounds easy, but what, exactly, does show mean? It means we must act out our scenes using action and dialogue in such a way that our reader can visualize exactly where he is and who he’s with—all while keeping him on the edge of his seat. Let’s look at an example:

Carey ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store he met a girl and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her but she blew him off. Then he went home.

Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay—so this example is exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, especially in dialogue and action. Consider:

     Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so Salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the “Big Man’’ or the regular?
     A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.
    “Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.
     Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . .

So now you have the idea. We need details. We need to know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. It is especially important to act out emotions and emotionally-packed scenes. This is the writer’s opportunity to shine. Never tell us what a character is feeling. Show us. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our imaginary world.

Bad: John was angry.
Good: John’s eyes narrowed. He slammed his fist on the table.

We also find the “show, don’t tell” problem in less-apparent ways. For example, in description.

Bad: Mary was a pretty girl, with blue eyes and blond hair.
Good: Mary’s blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step.

Bad: Molly is a wonderful person.
Good: Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She’s the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone—man, woman or child—at anytime.

Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys:
     Consummation of the soul. That’s what Sam called the gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense it begged to be satisfied, pleaded to be released, and he was helpless to resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own, titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded, everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.

Dialogue is another area where we have the opportunity to show or to tell. “I love you,” she crooned. “I love you, too,” he sputtered. And I cringe. First, using creative dialogue tags (crooned, sputtered) is telling, not showing. Let the power of your dialogue and the accompanying action show your readers the tone of voice and the emotion. Consider:

     “I love you,” she said, her voice smooth as her fingers massaged his Rolex.
     “Love you, too,” he said. His glassy eyes roved over her naked body, his mouth too wet and limp to properly form words.

You can’t tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won’t believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to act out, to let us feel.

But—does this mean we should act out absolutely everything? Uh-uh. Let’s face it—if we showed everything, our novels would run tens of thousands of pages—and readers would die of exhaustion. So what do we do? We must decide what information the reader needs. Just because we know everything about our characters and just because we spent weeks researching, it isn’t necessary to share everything we know with our reader. We must choose only the details we need to authenticate our story and omit everything else.

One of the most difficult and most crucial elements in story-telling is knowing when to give play-by-play action and when to back off and summarize. Play with this. If a scene doesn’t hold your interest, maybe it is better to summarize it in a sentence or two and go on to something more important. However, if it is a pivotal scene in the plot or critical to our understanding how our character reacts in a given situation, go for it. Give us action, give us dialogue, and let us experience and savor every single moment of it.

BONUS TIP: Never name an emotion. That’s a sure-fire giveaway that you’re telling and not showing.

© 2008 Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The First Deadly Sin of Writing

by Sandy Tritt

The Devil of Rejection tempts every writer with the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing. They seem innocent enough—a misplaced comma here, an adverb there—but soon the writer finds himself sinking into the dreaded darkness of the Rejection Pile. Often, he doesn't even realize he's been deceived. So let's reveal the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing for what they are—Death to your manuscript.

And punctuation and word choice. Nothing shouts “AMATEUR!” as loudly as poor punctuation, ghastly grammar, and sporadic spelling. No matter how wonderful a story is, if the writer doesn’t make an effort to proof for these problems, no agent or publisher (or reader) will take you seriously. If you do not have these skills yourself, hire an editor. If you plan to make writing your vocation, take classes at a local college, pick up a good reference manual (we recommend the Little, Brown Essential Handbook for Writers by Jane E. Aaron—$26.75 at, and keep up to date by subscribing to email services (we recommend Daily Writing Tips at  and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips at, of course, our own blog, newsletter, and bevy of tips on our website. Proof your manuscript, have five friends proof your manuscript, and then proof, proof, proof again.

BONUS TIP: Be consistent, especially if you wander from conventional usages. For example, if you choose to capitalize a word that is typically not capped, do so throughout your manuscript.

BONUS TIP: Limit use of exclamation marks, ellipses, colons and semi-colons.

BONUS TIP: Periods and commas go INSIDE the quotation marks.

Next week, we'll post the Second Deadly Sin of Writing. See you then!

(c) 2003 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved.