Show and Tell

Show and Tell

Ever since I got into this business, I’ve heard this advice: Show, Don’t Tell.

I’m here to tell you, the best novelists do both.  Yep, that’s right.  Showing alone can get downright boring, take lots of space you don’t need to use up, and it easily can be misunderstood.  Big time.  I love to read, so I’m marking examples in books as I read them, and I’ll show them here so you can learn from them.

Example 1:

(Showing): His ancient khaki suit was wrinkled and stained . . .

If Grisham stuck to showing, not telling, what could the reader infer from this example?  That Harry Rex had been out all night?  That he was homeless?  He’d been assaulted?  Thank goodness Grisham goes on to tell us:

 . . . and said to the world that Harry Rex didn’t give a damn about anything.  (Telling)

Beautiful, isn’t it?  It’s not a lot of telling, but why write a whole scene showing that a secondary character doesn’t give a damn about anything when this is much more effective?

Example 2:

It was one of those awkward moments, and we stood for exactly three seconds, then I put my hand out and brushed her hair, then her cheek.  I moved in for the big smooch, confident we were about to lock lips, but she stepped back and uttered the magic word…

Nelson DeMille slips in an important phrase.  Without it, this character would not seem both sensitive and masculine at the same time.  This is a nice mix, both in the character and in the showing and telling.  You can do the same thing in third person.

Example 3:

From Nicholas Evans: For a long moment the two of them stood quite still, staring at each other.  Connor felt like a pagan before some ancient demigod or devil summoned from a world beyond.  He felt the sweat chill on his neck.

This “telling” is emotional and pulls the reader into the character.


Now that you’ve seen these examples, take a minute to let them sink in.  Then next time you sit down to read, other examples should pop out at you.  Absorb them until you come to expect them, and that’s when it will come naturally to you to add it to your own writing.  Just watch the balance.

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