Monthly Archives: December 2013

Why “show, don’t tell” is the big myth of fiction writing

Why you need to show and tell

Why you need to show and tell“Show, don’t tell.” If you’re a fiction writer, you’ve probably been hearing that phrase since your first creative writing class. In a Google search, “show don’t tell” gets more results—billions—than any other aspect of writing I’ve searched for. And in many of these search results, telling gets a bad rap. Why is this? And what does “show, don’t tell” really mean anyway? As an author, aren’t you always telling a story? And, most importantly, how can both showing and telling be applied to improve your fiction writing?

First let’s get one thing clear: telling is not evil. Not at all. If you’ve been taught that telling is bad, I’m here to tell you that you can relax and reverse your thinking on that count. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with telling, as long as you learn how to do it well. After all, stories have been told for millennia. We use the term storytelling, not storyshowing. So why has telling become the evil twin, the stern mantra of creative writing teachers? Why is the entreaty always “show, don’t tell” and not “tell, don’t show”?

The answer is simple. It’s because it’s an easy, even lazy buzz phrase for most beginning writers who, without knowing the differences, seem to gravitate to an excess of telling. And why do they do that? It’s because well-crafted, detailed showing is difficult to do, especially for novice writers. But before we go any further, let’s look at some definitions.

Definitions and differences
Telling is narration that gives the reader information. Telling summarizes events that aren’t important enough to dramatize and create detailed imagery for. Telling typically requires fewer words than showing—but those words still need to be evocative, not dull. Save telling for situations where it’s necessary to set a scene or explain a situation in order to further the plot or characterization, but there’s little emotion involved. Just the facts, ma’am, but with creativity.

Showing is dramatizing. It conveys evocative, visceral, detailed imagery to readers that enables them to easily visualize a character or situation. Showing typically uses a lot more words to describe a scene that could be summed up in a few sentences of telling narrative. Beyond evocative descriptions, showing is often achieved through dialogue, direct and indirect thoughts, and strong point of view. It’s interactive, making the reader think and imagine, engaging her at a deeper level than just being told information passively.

Example #1

Telling: After walking for miles, Emily was exhausted and hungry and stopped at a farmhouse. When the farmer offered her breakfast, she gratefully sat down at the table and enjoyed every bite.

Showing: Emily’s weakened body trembled as she pulled her chair closer to the stranger’s table. Her nostrils quivered as the smoky aroma of bacon wafted upward, and she almost swooned as the rumbling in her stomach amplified. Plunging her fork into a glistening egg yolk, she crammed it into her mouth as the farmer observed her with a gentle smile. I couldn’t have gone another step, she thought, glancing shyly at the stranger and marveling at her good fortune at discovering his farmhouse.

Can you see the differences? In the first paragraph, the telling prose is dull and flat (I’ve done that deliberately), giving out simple statements of fact. You know Emily is hungry, but as a reader, you can’t viscerally feel her desperation, hunger, and gratitude. This is not to say that telling shouldn’t be imaginative and lively, but I’ve kept it plain to demonstrate the point.

In the second paragraph, I didn’t specifically tell you that Emily was exhausted, hungry, and grateful. I dramatized the scene by showing the food, the smell, the appearance, and her reactions, and you worked those things out for yourself. And showing does double duty here. a) Vivid imagery inspires the reader’s imagination and makes you engage in the story by deducing for yourself that Emily is exhausted, hungry, and grateful. b) By showing her feelings using direct thoughts, I’m delving into deeper point of view to help you feel a closer connection to Emily.

Example #2

Telling: Jacques felt old. He was tired, frightened, and despairing now that Myrna had died.

Showing: Jacques’ arthritic bones ached as he tried to stand. He wobbled slightly, his cane groping for solid ground on the ward’s slippery floor. Oh, Myrna, he thought, his mind flitting from one scenario to another, all of them unimaginable. How do you expect me to live a day longer without you?

In the first paragraph, the telling is devoid of any real emotion. In the second paragraph, even though I haven’t told you that Jacques is old, tired, frightened, or in despair, you can figure it out for yourself. Showing invites readers to participate in the story, deducing things on their own, rather than passively taking in “told” information. Moreover, in this example, I showed Jacques’ emotions by using direct thoughts to help the reader feel what Jacques is feeling and form a closer connection with him.  And helping readers form a deep, close connection with main characters should be an author’s primary goal for most modern fiction.

show and tell ticket stubAchieving a balance between showing and telling
Though the examples above appear to favour showing, it’s not suitable for every line of your writing. What’s really needed is a judicious balance of telling and showing. The following points describe how you can learn to become better at both showing and telling, so that achieving a good balance eventually becomes natural for you. These suggestions don’t only apply to fiction writing. They can also apply to poetry, creative nonfiction, memoir, biography, journalistic writing, and many other genres.

How to improve your showing writing:

  • Avoid telling readers that a character is angry, sad, frustrated, tired, bored, hungry, or any other basic human need or emotion. Ditch those boring feeling words. Instead, show the character’s behaviour using evocative imagery that conveys all the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. This way, you allow the reader to experience all those senses too, helping her become more deeply connected with your characters.
  • Think in terms of drama—what you would see in a stage play, TV show, or film. These mediums are, by their nature, 100% showing. In a written story, I also include thoughts, feelings, and dreams as showing. Before you write, close your eyes and visualize in detail what your characters are experiencing and sensing, as if they were performers on a stage.
  • Be more specific. Dig deep to get into the detail. Question every line in your story to see if it’s worth expanding. Don’t just write, “Harry was lonely.” Ask who, what, when, where, how, and why, and then describe the answers in detail. Try a test now: try describing Harry’s loneliness specifically without ever using that boring feeling word, lonely.
  • For point-of-view (POV) characters, go deep. Show their thoughts, feelings, and emotions through the use of indirect or direct thoughts in addition to dialogue. Learn more about POV in my blog post on how to write deep point of view here.
  • Use more showing in your most viscerally dramatic scenes: scenes with plot points and twists, scenes that develop character, and scenes that naturally evoke the most emotional or physical drama.
  • Use strong verbs. Get rid of weak verbs like am/is/was/are/were, has/have/had, go/went, do/did, make/made, walked, etc. (the exception is said, in dialogue). These are all telling words. Was is probably the biggest culprit to avoid, since most stories are told in the past tense. “She was scared. He was angry. They were happy.” Another example: the verb walked is one of the most overused words I encounter in editing fiction. Dozens of stronger, more evocative verbs can be substituted for walk: amble, saunter, stride, hobble, mosey, shuffle, stagger, plod, stalk . . . the list is long. While a sentence like “Peter hobbled along” is technically still telling, it shows how Peter is moving, and it’s far more visual and specific than walked.
  • Use more dialogue. Except for long monologues in which the character is conveying information (sometimes called an information dump, which should be avoided anyway), most dialogue is showing—excluding the dialogue tags. Use dialogue when the scene calls for emotion and detail, and make sure it contributes to the forward motion of the plot.
  • Dialogue tags are telling. While it’s important not to overdo accents by spelling speech phonetically, try to show aspects of the character through the speech itself, not the tags. Each character’s speech should be unique.
    → Telling: “Let’s go grab a pizza, and maybe we’ll get some spaghetti too,” Giovanni said in a thick Italian accent.
    → Showing: “We go eat pizza, maybe we eat spaghetti too?” Giovanni said.
    In the latter example, you can see how not using contractions, dropping the article (a), and using a comma splice shows the accent without telling the reader about it. And we know his nationality because of his name.
  • Use “ly” adverbs in dialogue tags sparingly. These are telling and should be kept to a minimum. Instead, show the emotions in the dialogue itself and try for stronger verbs occasionally in the tags.
    → Weak and redundant: “I’m mad at Harry,” Emily said angrily.
    → Better: “I’m going to throttle that Harry next time I see him,” Emily raged.
  • Use direct and indirect thoughts. Describing—showing—internal psychological states is the biggest advantage written fiction has over cinema. Anytime you’re getting into the mind and thoughts of your POV character, whether directly or indirectly, you’re showing how he feels. Direct and indirect thoughts are simply internal dialogue, and dialogue is showing. While you can’t externally show thoughts, if you’re in the POV character’s head you can do some dramatizing there. Writing allows this option that cinema and stage do not.
    → Telling: Jacques suddenly thought of Eveline and wondered how she was coping with Myrna’s passing.
    → Showing – indirect thought: Eveline! She couldn’t be coping with Myrna’s death any better than he was, Jacques thought. (Tag can be omitted.)
    → Showing – direct thought: Eveline! She can’t be coping with Myrna’s death any better than I am, Jacques thought. (Tag can be omitted.)
    Can you see how these three examples increase in drama and their power to draw the reader in and feel more closely connected with Jacques?

How to improve your telling writing:

  • Set the scene with vivid telling. Often the beginning of chapters and scenes employ telling, usually through an omniscient narrator, to summarize the setting, time, weather, and any other narrative that doesn’t directly contribute to the plot or characterization. Even while telling, keep the imagery lively as possible.
  • Just as with showing, use strong verbs. Robust verbs convey action; weak verbs are static. As noted in the example above, just about any verb is stronger than walked. Compare these verbs:
    → He was happy, and everyone knew it.
    → His joy bubbled over and embraced everyone.
  • Occasionally vary your dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are a form of telling, where the author is telling readers who is speaking. While you may have learned that said is the best word to use in dialogue tags (he said, she said), that’s not a rule, and it should be broken sometimes. Occasionally use strong speaking verbs that convey how the speech is being said, such as stammered, stuttered, yelled, drawled, bellowed, demanded, quipped, exclaimed, grumbled, shrieked . . . the list is long.  Just don’t overdo these.
  • Telling isn’t an excuse to relax your creativity. Constantly work on your creative prose techniques to imbue your narrative telling with as much originality and imagination as possible.
  • Backstory usually needs to be told, not shown. If you have a lot of backstory, avoid dumping it in in big chunks. Instead—and nobody says this is easy—toss in little bits here and there where the POV character may have appropriate cause for reflection. The telling of backstory should be sprinkled in organically.
  • Use telling to present basic information the reader needs to fill out the story. Often information that’s essential to the story must be told—there’s no way around it. Sprinkle it in with a light touch, balance it with showing, and make it sparkle. Avoid big telling information dumps at all costs unless you want your readers to skip and skim and snooze.
  • Here’s a beautiful example of evocative telling from Elie Wiesel’s Night:
    “How he had aged since last night!  His body was completely twisted, shriveled up into himself. His eyes were glazed over, his lips parched, decayed. Everything about him expressed total exhaustion. His voice was damp from tears and snow.” That is so expressive it borders on showing. Sometimes there’s a fine line and even overlap between them. In the alternative definition below, you’ll see that this example would be considered showing.

An alternative way of defining showing
Some creative writing teachers suggest that if the description is something the reader can “see” as if watching a dramatic reenactment of the scene, that’s showing. If it’s necessary for the author to intercede and provide additional information, that’s telling. For example:

The stranger emerged from the forest as the wind whipped the trees into a tangle. He wore red Italian leather riding boots. His face was concealed by a black mask. I wondered if I was in danger. Then I recognized my nemesis, Archie.

Using this theory, the boldface words Italian and concealed are telling here, as are the final two sentences. If you watched this as a dramatization on screen or stage, you wouldn’t know the leather was Italian or that the stranger was attempting to conceal his face, nor would you know the character was wondering. Without more information, you wouldn’t know he recognized a man named Archie. The bolded words are the authorial voice interceding and telling. However, while this is a nice, simplistic way to define showing vs. telling, I feel it restricts the definition too much. It’s too cinematic. In writing, as we’ve seen, drama can easily be shown through indirect and direct thoughts. Internal dialogue is comparable to external dialogue, and dialogue is showing.

Stopping time
Using this alternative theory, here’s another way to determine whether a piece of writing is showing or telling. If the “clock” of the story, the chronology, the minute-by-minute forward motion of events has to be stopped to feed information to the reader, that can be considered telling. In the following example, the first sentence is showing, and the second sentence in boldface is telling.

Harry trudged through the snow, shivering uncontrollably. He was frustrated that he hadn’t known how miserable the day would become.

In summary
As I’ve mentioned, the most critical aspect of showing and telling is a balance between these two aspects of storytelling (or storyshowing). Both showing and telling have their place. Too much consecutive telling, even if creatively done, may lull and bore readers, and too much consecutive showing can becoming tiring to readers. I recently edited a book that was about 90% showing—almost all dialogue. After just a few pages, I was becoming terribly weary. (But of course, I soldiered on, editing to remove future reader weariness.)

Once you’re aware of the differences between showing and telling, it’s not that difficult to see where more or less of one or the other is needed. Like all aspects of fiction writing, achieving mastery of showing and telling simply takes practice. If you’ve been fussing over a certain scene and can’t figure out why it just won’t come together, perhaps it has too much telling and not enough showing or vice versa. Try rewriting it with a balance of showing and telling in mind, and you may just find yourself with a much more lively, evocative scene.

♠  ♠  ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a 
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , and Facebook
December 19, 2013



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What is plot? Pinning down fiction’s elusive structure

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

179035457Recently, I was evaluating a fiction manuscript in which the really compelling part of the story didn’t begin until 200 pages in, halfway through the manuscript. The foregoing pages read like a journal of the protagonist’s everyday life up until the point of the inciting incident, which in this case happened to be a murder for which he was charged. While I wrote up suggestions for structural changes that would have that dramatic event occur much earlier in the story, I thought about how my self-publishing authors are often uncertain about how to structure a story, going at it blindly or by instinct. I’m always surprised that some authors feel they can write fiction using their instincts only. After all, a person can’t just sit down and write a symphony by instinct. Much theory needs to be learned before composition can happen, and it’s no different with writing. Stories need structural theory applied to create a plot.

Ask ten people how to define plot in fiction, and you’ll get as many different responses. Even with the classic definition some of us learned in school, why is plot so hard to pin down? Can a cut-and-dried definition or formula be identified, and can it be useful? Isn’t it contradictory to try to clamp an analytical left-brain formula around what is essentially a creative right-brain process? Is it even possible? In this post, I’ll examine the elements of plot from several perspectives and suggest how these can be applied to your fiction writing. While none of these ideas has the definitive answer to the question, “What is plot?” all are useful in developing a better understanding of this elusive concept.

Artifice, causality, and consequences
At its most basic, plot means structure—a story with a contrived, artificial structure. It’s artificial because it’s art and not life, which is simply a series of unstructured events, some planned, some random. Most of our lives, if written down, would read like meandering journal or diary entries, with one event following on another without artifice. Conversely, plot can be thought of as causal, where something usually happens because of something else, followed by consequences, followed by more causal events followed by more consequences. For example, the following sentences read like diary entries: I was depressed. I splurged on airline tickets to France. My bank account was depleted. But if causality is added, we have what could be roughly considered a little plot: Because I was depressed, I splurged on airline tickets to France; consequently my bank account was depleted and I was even more depressed. Of course, this example is too simplistic. Not all plot points need to have an explicit cause, but if the writing is done well, the reasons things happen as they do should be implicit. Causality should be subtle and organic.

Conflict is essential
But structure and causality are not enough. Within that framework, the essential ingredient for a true plot is conflict. At the outset of the story, the protagonist must be placed in a life-altering situation, something that upsets the normal course of her life, causes her to struggle, and forces her to set a new goal or goals in her life. It is a change sometimes of her own making or, more frequently, a change instigated by outside forces. This is called the inciting incident. It can be a physical (external) or psychological (internal) struggle, but it always motivates the protagonist to set a goal, then strive through conflict and struggle to reach it. Her motives and motivation to reach that goal must be strong and realistic. In most fiction, the underlying contract or promise the author makes to the reader is to ensure the protagonist’s goal is fulfilled by the end of the story. In a tragedy, however, this goal may not be fulfilled. Many of us were taught in creative writing classes that conflict can be human against human, human against nature, or human against him/herself (internal). Most fiction falls into one of these three categories.

It’s important to realize that conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be full of high drama. Conflict can range from the smallest moral decision (internal)—should Emily stay home and wait for her lover to call, or should she assist her grandmother with shopping?—to a huge battle scene (external), and everything in between.

Once the conflict has been introduced, the remainder of the story until the climax is spent with the protagonist dealing with her struggles, whether they’re physical, psychological, or moral. In each successive scene, problems, obstacles, and consequences escalate, providing the protagonist with new opportunities to reassess her goal, attempt to achieve it and not quite succeed, then reassess her goal again, attempt to achieve it, and so on with escalating tension and conflict until the climax.

Classic plot structure
Let’s continue by discussing for a moment what we learned in school about plot, the classic, conventional formula of conflict-crisis-resolution. The traditional structure of a story—the narrative arc—consists of a beginning with an exposition/introduction, an inciting incident, rising action during which problems, struggle, conflict, twists, and tension escalate, a climax or crisis, falling action or denouement, and a resolution/conclusion in which the protagonist has been transformed in some way by her experiences. This is sometimes referred to as Freytag’s triangle or pyramid, based on 19th-century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag’s analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama. However, plot is perhaps more precisely diagrammed as an ascending arc in which scenes build on one another until the crisis or climax occurs, followed by a much briefer descent in the arc in which the denouement and resolution occur. At this point, the protagonist will typically have undergone a transformation through all the changes she has experienced to become a better, wiser, or more enlightened human being.

In the diagram I’ve created below, the mini arcs represent individual scenes in a story. Plot points are simply turning points in the plot, no matter how small.

diagram of plot arc

The ABCDE formula
A similar formula for describing plot has the easy but not entirely accurate acronym ABCDE (the words in parentheses are mine):

A. Action (introduction or exposition) – inciting incident occurs; setting, characters, main conflicts are introduced
B. Background or backstory (followed by the rising action) – characters are developed, conflict is increased scene by scene, more obstacles are created, motives and motivation increase. This forms the major part of the plot.
C. Climax or crisis – the peak of a story in which the major conflicts erupt in a final struggle—a battle, argument, tense emotional moment—in which the protagonist will either win or lose her struggle.
D. Denouement or falling action – events that immediately follow the climax; tidying up of the plot’s loose ends.
E. Ending (resolution or conclusion) – the reader seeks a feeling of closure; the protagonist reflects on life and how she has changed and grown, hopefully having learned lessons to become a wiser person.

However, this formula falls a bit short. Stories need not always begin in the middle of the action, but if they do, that action is likely brief and may not characterize the entire exposition. And certainly backstory without rising action would be meaningless; the mnemonic should really be ABRCDE, the R for rising action, which is the largest part of the story. Nonetheless, I’ve provided the ABCDE formula here as an easy tool against which to check your work.

I’ve also seen a variation of this formula, ABDCE: Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. It’s attributed to Alice Adams, American novelist and university professor. This has value too, but again is a little oversimplified.

Nigel Watts’ eight-point story arc
Another way of characterizing plot is Nigel Watts’ popular eight-point story arc, which he explains in detail in his book Write a Novel and Get It Published. You’ll note there are many similarities to the above two models:

1. Stasis – the exposition; the protagonist going about his or her everyday life.
2. Trigger – the inciting incident, a conflict or problem that alters the protagonist’s life irrevocably and sets the plot in motion.
3. Quest –the protagonist is forced toward accomplishing a big, story-worthy goal that involves solving the problem created by the trigger incident.
4. Surprise – the rising action. A series of events fraught with obstacles, struggles, and escalating conflict that make achieving the goal increasingly elusive. Each event involves a decision and action to propel the story to the next event. Character growth and development occurs here.
5. Critical choice – the character must make a crucial decision, usually involving a moral dilemma, to choose a particular path and confront his or her biggest obstacles.
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of emotion and tension. This could be an argument, a physical battle, or emotional turmoil.
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice and climax, leaving the protagonist changed: wiser, more enlightened, having grown and developed in some way.
8. Resolution – the protagonist’s main problem initiated by the trigger event is solved; the story ends at a new point of stasis, a new beginning.

A few words about scenes
For all of these methods, the arc of a plot is broken down into separate scenes, some of which may be grouped together in chapters. Each scene should have its own mini structure, a mini arc that resembles the larger plot arc in structure but without the falling action and resolution. Instead, each scene should have a mini decision or goal, a struggle to reach it, a mini crisis, and consequences that propel the protagonist (or antagonist) into further conflict and struggle—which create the beginning of the next scene. These mini crises need not be huge or dramatic; they can be simple and as short as a sentence, as long as they provide the impetus for consequences and a new cycle of goal/decision/struggle/conflict/crisis/consequences. Scene breaks generally occur with a change in location, a change in time, or a change in point of view. I’ll examine how to structure scenes in further detail in a future blog post.

“But a formula stifles my creativity!”
Perhaps about now you’re silently screaming, “Formulas! I’m a creative writer. Doesn’t writing by formula go against every fibre of my being? How am I supposed to apply my creativity to such rigid rules?” It’s true; abstract, theoretical formulas don’t always lend themselves well to creativity. And simply knowing these conventions falls far short of knowing precisely how to apply them and actually write a story around them. At worst, they may be an impediment, causing you writer’s block because you can’t make your ideas fit such seemingly restrictive structures. Moreover, these theoretical models can be too simplistic; they don’t account well enough for subplots (which are handled like a mini plot and overlaid against the main plot), story layering or multiple storylines, metafiction, character-driven novels, some literary fiction, and many other avant garde ideas and variations that can arise from the creative process.

How to apply plot knowledge
So what am I going to suggest? I won’t say you can escape learning conventional theory. As I’ve noted, a student learning musical composition would be at a huge disadvantage if he hadn’t first learned music theory. I will suggest that you learn these concepts well—an easy starting point is James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure—and then put them away, internalize them, and get back to writing your story. Set aside the rules, forget the formulas, abandon the restrictions and limitations. For now, just let your creativity flow. The creative process is mysterious and unique to each writer, and it should never be stifled by conventions, formulas, or theory.

If you’ve taken the time to ground yourself with knowledge of classic plot structure, your subconscious will use it as you write. But this knowledge will best serve you after you’ve completed your writing. When you’ve completed a first draft, get back to the formulas. Use them as a checklist against which to examine your work. For example, something may be bothering you about a certain weak area, but you haven’t been able to put your finger on it. Knowledge of plot and scene structure may help you identify the problem.

The art of telling stories has been around for millennia, long before the written word recorded them for posterity. Increasingly, modern writers are trying radical new approaches to fiction, sometimes abandoning the classic structure I’ve examined here. But I and many other writing professionals are convinced it remains one of the most satisfying structures for readers, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. If you’re a beginning writer, it’s best to adhere fairly closely to the classic structure’s conventions—at least for your first work. Absorb them first, then set them aside and create. Afterward, use your new knowledge to check whether your fiction measures up. And remember that although these guidelines may seem rigid, they’re anything but; millions of stories have been told using variations on this same structure. It’s tremendously flexible, and there’s room for infinite creativity within it.

Plot development and character development are inextricably interwoven. To expand your knowledge of fiction techniques, check out my blog post on how to develop deep point of view for your characters.


♠  ♠  ♠

freelance manuscript editor

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
December 5, 2013


References, in addition to Internet resources:
1. Alice LaPlante, The Making of a Story (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007)
2. James Scott Bell, Plot and Structure (Writer’s Digest Books, 2004)
3. Nigel Watts, Write a Novel and Get It Published (McGraw-Hill, 2010)
4. Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint (Writer’s Digest Books, 1988)


I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a few minutes before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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