Monday, January 20, 2014

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Showing Instead of Telling

One of the most maddening things I heard when I was a younger writer was to "show instead of tell."

"Don't tell me what your characters are thinking, Ethan," my creative writing teacher would prompt with infuriating tranquility. "Let your characters' actions show what's going on."

The Ethan of 2008 scoffed.

Please, writing instructor who clearly knows less than me, I mused. My readers are not psychics. They simply must be told that Sharon's eyes "shimmered with the ghosts of pain long scarred, glistened with the white-hot anguish of love lost."

The thing is, my professor--a 28-year-old christened "Old Hook Leg" for reasons that have nothing to do with what you might imagine--was right. Actions speak louder than words. Less is more. Whatever the cliche, the core value rings true: details conveyed through action pack a bigger punch than those conveyed through exposition, and they are furthermore more enjoyable to read.

You have to get that weight off the ground somehow, but telling is like doing it with an ugly forklife--while showing is the equivalent of having your barbell hoisted by an adorable little baby! (See what I did there?)

And who doesn't like babies? Maybe like, Satan or something, but then again, if Satan wrote a manuscript I'm sure it would be filled with dreadful run-on sentences. So there.

But how does one actually do this?

Let's revisit Sharon. Let's say that Sharon is a 43-year-old woman whose husband of 20 years has just informed her he wants a divorce. Now let's tell.

"Sharon reeled with David's words: 'I don't love you anymore'--literally reeled, like she'd been shot through the chest with a harpoon. It couldn't be real. The pain, the pain was just too great. She had never imagined that something could hurt as bad as what David had just said to her, couldn't fathom that a two-decade marriage that had produced two children was now at an end.

"Her eyes leaked tears leaden with the fury and sadness of a woman scorned. She couldn't believe he was doing this to her."

Tell me that wasn't some bullshit. Overwrought, overly sentimental, and, what's more, you have no image of what's actually going on. Let's try showing.

"Sharon stared at David with an ashen face.

"'You don't...'

"'I don't love you anymore,' he answered. His eyes glistened. 'I'm sorry, Sharon.'

"Sharon whispered something to herself that David couldn't hear.


"She shook her head and turned to leave, but stumbled as she approached the door.


"She'd curled in on herself, clutching her ribs as her frame shook with sobs.

"'Twenty years, David,' she said. 'Get out. Just get out.'"

Less is more, folks. The second passage demonstrates, quite clearly, that Sharon is devastated by her husband's decision, but it never has to be directly stated. If you can show emotion and motivation through plot movement, you'll both save time and keep your readers' attention. Both of which are, evidently, things writers should be doing.

Being a literary agent teaches you a lot of things.


  1. We always need a little reminder of the most obvious things. When my creative writing teacher first harped on this (eons ago, it seems), I had no idea what she was talking about. I think John Gardner said it best, "Good writers may "tell" about almost anything in fiction except the characters' feelings"

    Thanks for the reminder and Happy New Year!

  2. Excellent post. I particularly liked the image!

    I shall tweet this.

  3. Love the pic!! What a cutie :)
    The show & tell discussion always needs a revisit and reminders & examples are always useful! Thanks :)

  4. It's one of those things that you really don't get until you get it. Then you get it.

    Another way of putting it is to mix the action, description, and dialogue. I find that early drafts tend to do them one at a time: a couple paragraphs of description, a page of dialogue, then half a page of action... Then rinse and repeat. Mixing them together is more effective. Compare, "She had long, blonde hair. She swept it over her shoulder," to, "She swept her blonde hair over her shoulder." The former tells; the latter shows.