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The golden rule

May 9, 2010

You all know the golden rule of writing, or at least you’ve heard of it.

If you have a minute to take a fun quiz, click here before you continue. One question is about that golden rule.

So, you probably answered the question correctly. The golden rule of writing is “show, don’t tell,” of course. What does it mean?

“Telling” means you give readers your interpretations and conclusions, while “showing” means you provide readers with enough details and behaviors to let them draw their own conclusions.

Showing pulls readers into the story and keeps them active and involved. Telling makes them passive recipients of a lecture.

How to show

Use the senses. Show readers things they can see, hear, taste, etc. Use concrete nouns and strong verbs that create an image, e.g., “she tiptoed” tells us more than “she walked.” Be specific.

Don’t give readers conclusions, e.g., Rika was a loyal friend. Show them a scene in which Rika is acting in a way that lets readers come to that conclusion on their own.

How to tell when you’re telling

Here are some red flags that might indicate telling:

  • Using adjectives, especially in combination with linking verbs, e.g., she was, looked, felt, appeared, seemed. This is especially true for abstract adjectives, e.g., beautiful, interesting, etc.

TELLING: Hendrika didn’t seem impressed.

SHOWING: Hendrika tilted her head and peered down her nose, never moving back an inch.

  • Using adverbs, especially in dialogue tags.

TELLING: “You are such a jerk,” she said angrily.

SHOWING: “You are such a jerk.” She slammed the door.

  • Using emotion words. Instead of naming emotions, use actions, visceral reactions, and body language to show us how the character is feeling.

TELLING: “It’s not my place to judge,” Hendrika said with her characteristic humbleness.

SHOWING: “It’s not my place to judge.” Hendrika lowered her lashes and peered at black-rimmed fingernails.

  • Using dialogue tags other than “said” to tell readers how a line of dialogue should be read. Instead, let the dialogue speak for itself.

TELLING: “Get out!” he exclaimed.

SHOWING: “Get the hell out!”

  • Using “filters.” You’re telling readers what your character sees, hears, feels, etc., instead of letting readers experience it directly.

TELLING: Rika heard Amy suck in a breath.

SHOWING: Amy sucked in a breath.



Instead of telling you more about “show, don’t tell,” let me show you a few more examples from Hidden Truths:

FIRST DRAFT:

Papa had always said it wasn’t fit for a woman to live in, and while Amy thought it was just fine, she knew the townswomen wouldn’t want to move in here with Phin. It was a hard and sometimes lonely life out on the ranch. Maybe that was why none of the ranch hands had a wife.

SECOND DRAFT:

“Papa says this place isn’t fit for a woman to live in. Not that I think so, but she looks like the kind who’d agree. Didn’t you ever wonder why none of the ranch hands has a wife?”

FIRST DRAFT:

Calmly, Amy reached out and touched the mare’s shoulder, just for the length of a heartbeat. Then she took her hand away, showing the horse that nothing bad would happen.

SECOND DRAFT:

Amy reached out and touched the mare’s shoulder, just for the length of a heartbeat. Then she took her hand away. “See?” she whispered. “Getting touched doesn’t hurt.”

FIRST DRAFT:

The mare sidestepped nervously, and Amy dropped down and soothed her.

SECOND DRAFT:

The mare snorted and sidestepped.

Amy dropped down. “Everything’s fine, beautiful. Let’s try that again.”

FIRST DRAFT:

Rika had begged Jo to see one of the hospital’s lady doctors, but Jo had refused, saying she needed every dime to start her new life out west.

SECOND DRAFT:

“Promise you’ll go see a doctor. They got lady doctors at the hospital now.”

“What would they tell me? To rest? To quit working in the mill?” Jo shook her head. “I can’t afford either.”

Rika drilled torn fingernails into her palm. “But maybe there’s a tonic or syrup that can help.”

“I can’t waste money on that. I need every dime when I go west. Now go, or the others will eat your supper.”

FIRST DRAFT:

“Amy! Are you all right? What happened to you?” She had stopped counting how often something like this had happened, and her first thought had always been to make sure that Amy was uninjured.

SECOND DRAFT:

“Welcome to โ€”” Then Nora’s gaze fell onto Amy’s dress, and her mouth snapped shut. She hurried down the veranda steps. “Amy! Are you all right? What happened?”


When to tell

Telling has its place in fiction. If I showed everything, even the stuff that’s not important, my novels would be 500,000 words. So sometimes telling is not a bad thing.

  • Transitions: Telling allows you to summarize a span of time or distance in which only unimportant stuff happens. For example, it might be better to tell readers “She ate breakfast and then drove to work” instead of showing every spoonful of cereal.
  • Telling also helps avoid repeating things you already showed, e.g., “She told her boss what the witness had said.” instead of having to repeat the entire conversation with the witness.
  • For very mundane tasks, telling might be more appropriate, e.g., she shut down her computer instead of: She moved her mouse and clicked on…

So, fellow writers, what are your experiences with “show, don’t tell”?

Readers, have you ever become irritated by writers explaining the story to you?

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10 comments

  1. Great post, Jae! Thanks for the examples – that always helps more than theoretical thoughts about the golden rule.
    Let me see if I can apply something of this to my new story ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. There’s plenty of telling in my first drafts, so it wasn’t hard to find the examples ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. The examples helped a lot, thanks for including those.

    BTW, loved the quiz! Though I’m concerned about what a score of 4 out of 15 might imply. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. I admit that for some of the questions, my “correct answers” were a bit subjective.

    I just went through the answers the participants gave, and two things puzzled me:

    Why do most people think keeping a spreadsheet with your writing progress is as boring as watching grass grow? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also interesting: most people thought I’d like to change the title of “The Art of Pretending”… now what’s wrong with that title?


    • What’s wrong with those people?! Clearly, the spreadsheet is SEXY.


      • Hush, don’t give away all the correct answers of the quiz ๐Ÿ˜‰


  5. […] showing emotions instead of telling them. I blogged about the golden rule, show don’t tell, before. Here’s a short […]


  6. […] The golden rule […]


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  8. Telling is my one way to go; none of you propagander will be able to deter me from telling orgulously and massively instead of showing.

    I am not irritated by telling, but expect it and; consequently, I drop any fiction that is insufficiently explained by the writer.



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