showing vs. telling

Allowing Your Characters to Have a “Wicked Sense” of Humor

Fabio Bueno AuthorThe last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about when to show and when to tell. This week I have a special treat for you. Debut author Fabio Bueno has stopped by to give us an example from his new book of how he showed how much a character had changed rather than just telling his readers she was feeling more confident.

Fabio writes young adult/urban fantasy/paranormal novels, including the award-winning Wicked Sense. He resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and kids. When not writing or reading, he geeks out with family and friends, solidifies his reputation as the world’s slowest runner, and acts very snobbish about movies. (His words, not mine 🙂 )

Take it away, Fabio…


In Wicked Sense, Skye is a modern-day witch trying to find a powerful Sister in her high school. When the plot thickens, Skye must have a talk with her ex, Connor, who is in college. He had not been a good boyfriend, and they had had a bad break up. Now, she is going to the University of Washington to meet him. There, she finds Connor making out with a girl in the library. Still, Skye has to talk to him.

My original plan had her simply clearing her throat and letting them know she was there. This scene would later spark an internal monologue by Skye in which she would reflect and conclude she had moved on: she wasn’t interested in Connor anymore.

However, I thought clearing the throat would be too tame, an overused device. Skye had recently gone through some changes; her reaction should reflect these changes. A few options that crossed my mind:

– Skye makes a sarcastic comment

– She doesn’t mind seeing her boyfriend and comes back later

– She steps out and calls him on his cell phone

– Skye goes to the desk and asks the librarian for a book in that row; the librarian catches them and scolds them

I ended up writing the scene below, from Skye’s point of view:

Navigating the aisles, I feel like the books embrace me. I crisscross the rows until I zero in on him.

He’s being smothered by a redhead in jeans and high heels. It’s a long, slobbery kiss. They’re very much into it, their hands reaching places. That’s probably why Connor hasn’t sensed my presence yet.

As I’m about to clear my throat and help them avoid a public indecency charge, an idea comes to me. There are more entertaining ways of doing it.

“Connor!” I yell. My cry shatters the library’s stillness.

They disentangle, startled.

“How could you?” I continue, still loud. Someone on another aisle tries to shush me. “You leave me and the twins at home to suck face with this skank?”

The shushes die. The redhead looks at him. A couple of students stare.

“Skye, I—”

I don’t let him speak. “That’s why I slave every night, waitressing? Paying your tuition? And you’re here, still using that fake British accent to pick up girls!”

He shakes his head. The girl is now mad at him, not even caring about me calling her a name. More people gather around us.

“The twins don’t have shoes! And you know there’s one more on the way,” I say, touching my belly, adding a slight hint of quivering to my voice.

The girl slaps him. Hard. And struts away. She stops by my side to say something to me, but I close my eyes and raise my hand to silence her. She just leaves.

Mum has an Oscar, you know.

Connor pleads, whispering, “Can we take this somewhere else?”

My hands cover my eyes (because I don’t know how to cry on cue), but I nod. The crowd disperses.

After we leave the library, I start to laugh. Connor puts his hands on both sides of his head and looks at me as if he’s seeing me for the first time. I can’t stop laughing. Maybe it’s a release from all the tension of the last couple of days.

Wicked Sense by Fabio BuenoUp until that week, Skye had been tentative, shy, and reactive, but she was growing stronger and more confident. The scene SHOWS that Skye had changed, her new outlook on life, and how she had moved on. It even lets Connor get a little comeuppance. A few people mentioned that this is one of their favorite scenes in the book. I remember writing it at the library and laughing. And all this because I needed an alternative for “clearing the throat.”

One of the best advices about characterization I heard is: “What would this character do? What would only this character do? What would only this character do in this point of her life?”

I would add: let your character do her thing. It might not be your thing. But if she must do it, let her.

What’s the best piece of advice about characters you’ve ever been given?

You can connect with Fabio on his website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Click here to buy Wicked Sense in ebook format.

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Four Situations When We Should Tell Rather than Show

When to Tell Rather than ShowBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Blasphemy! After my previous post where I gave four techniques to help you show rather than tell, how dare I suggest we should sometimes tell rather than show?! Won’t that lead to weak, flat writing.

I’m not recanting on what I wrote last week. When you come across one of the four ways that suggest you’re telling rather than showing, you should rewrite.

But times do exist when it’s better to tell than to show. In 2011, I had the privilege of being mentored by Randy Ingermanson (of Snowflake Method and Advanced Writing E-Zine fame) at a conference. One of the things I remember best is what he said about showing and telling—it’s all about balance.

In these four situations, telling is actually better than showing.

1) You’re Dealing with an Insignificant Fact

When he needs to decide whether to show or tell, award-winning science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer asks, “Will it be on the test?” In other words, when you take the time to show something, readers assume it’s important to the story. If you spend two paragraphs showing the snow and ice, later in the story you’d better have someone’s car slide off the road or someone near death from hypothermia. Otherwise, just tell the reader “It was snowing, and ice covered the roads.” 

2) During Transitions

Sometimes you just need to get a character from point A to point B without bringing the story to a grinding halt by describing it.

The next morning, Marilyn drove to Bob’s house.

We don’t need to see Marilyn drive to Bob’s house. We just need to know she did. We don’t need you to describe the sunrise or the morning traffic jam in detail to try to get around telling us she went in the morning.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the mountain summit.

If nothing eventful happened on the climb, if it wasn’t essential to the story for us to see them climbing, we don’t need the blow by blow.

Sometimes, narrative is the most efficient, best way to get the job done.

3) When Showing Would Bog Down Your Story or Confuse Your Reader

Sometimes the reader absolutely needs to know a fact that all the characters already know, and creating a scene to show that fact is going to slow down the story and feel forced.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first in the series about the colonization of Mars, depends on complex technological and biochemical ideas. Robinson can’t stop and create a scene every time he needs to give the reader a piece of information. The story would be unreasonably long and slow. He also can’t leave it out or the story wouldn’t make sense to readers.

Here’s an example with the telling element in red. Frank is pushing his arm into a special plastic.

[Frank] stopped breathing. He felt the pressure of his molars squeezing together. He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s grid. Polyvinylidene diflouride was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hyrdrogen and flourine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for flourine, for instance, and you had saran wrap.

When you’re telling in a situation like this, make sure you do it in small bites and that you make it interesting.

(4) In Your Opening Sentence

This might sound crazy at first, but look at a lot of the strong first lines from bestselling and award-winning novels. You’ll see what could be considered telling. (Personally I prefer to call it compelling narrative.)

Rivka Meyers knew something was wrong when she bumped into a wall that wasn’t there. – from Transgression by Randy Ingermanson

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. – from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

He had the look of a man who was afraid that tonight would be his last on earth. – from The Forgotten by David Baldacci

Carla knew her parents were about to have a row. – from Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Telling isn’t always bad.

The trick with writing is that we have to learn the rules before we can break them, and when we break them, we have to be sure we’re breaking them because it makes the story better rather than because we want to be rebels, because we’re lazy, or because we think the rules don’t apply to us. The rules do apply to us, lazy writing is crappy writing, and there’s no value in being a rebel just for the sake of it.

What do you think? Am I right about the need to sometimes tell rather than show? Do you have a favorite author who manages to perfectly find the balance?

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Four Techniques to Show Rather than Tell

Showing Vs. Telling in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

You’ve heard the advice show, don’t tell until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet all of us still seem to struggle with it. I think that’s often because we need a few practical things we can do to identify where we might be telling rather than showing.

If you’ve ever been accused of telling or you just want to make sure you’ve eliminated unnecessary telling from your work in progress, check for these four telling offenders. (There are more than four, but four is what I can fit in a blog post of a reasonable length.)

Naming Emotions

He was angry. She felt guilty. He hated her.

All of these tell the reader about the emotion rather than showing them. Telling emotion keeps the reader at arm’s length rather than letting them experience the emotions along with the character.

Telling: Jennifer was sad because of the death of her daughter.

Showing: Jennifer stood face to face with the delicate porcelain doll Ellie idolized too much to even play with. The doll stared back, her face held in an immortal smile, mocking. No doll deserved to live longer than the little girl who owned her. Jennifer snatched the doll from the shelf and heaved her toward the far wall. The doll’s head exploded like fireworks.

Most emotions in life are nuanced. Telling allows you to convey only the most basic part of the emotion, whereas showing allows you to bring out all the facets. In the example above, Jennifer isn’t just sad. She’s also angry, maybe even a little bitter. That’s very different from a character who is sad and guilty, or a character who is sad…but also a little bit relieved. You lose meaning when you tell rather than show emotion. (Click here to read more about How to Show Character Emotions.)

Showing does force you to do more work in figuring out the layers of emotion your character is feeling, but the result is well worth it.

A tool I recommend for finding ways to show emotions through body language (instead of labeling those emotions) is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Special Editing Tip: If you think this might be a problem for you, make a list of every emotion you can think of and use the “Find” feature of your word processing program to run a search for those words. You’ll quickly see if you’ve been naming emotions and where you need to fix it.

Descriptive Dialogue Tags

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) a sentence, you’re violating the “show don’t tell” principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. If you feel like you need to use a tag other than said, asked, and occasionally, whispered or shouted for the reader to understand your meaning, you need to rewrite your dialogue and the beats around it to make it stronger and clearer.

Even if you use asked or said, you might still be telling if you tack on adverbs. (An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.)

She said sadly. He asked sulkily. She said angrily

Telling: “Are you sure he escaped?” Annabelle asked anxiously.

Showing: “What do you mean he might have escaped?” Annabelle’s gaze darted to the door, and she chewed the edge of her thumb nail. “He either did or he didn’t. Which is it?”

Explaining Motivations By Using “To”

We each have our private writing demons, and this is mine. If I’m going to fall prey to a telling sin, it will be this one.

Telling: She grabbed her bow to shoot the deer. The arrow arced through the air, and lodged in the animal’s throat. It sank to its knees. Dinner was served.

Most of this is showing. Except for the part underlined and bolded. The problem is we don’t actually see her shoot. We’re told why she grabbed her bow, and then the arrow is flying, but we’ve skipped the part when she fires the shot.

Showing: She grabbed her bow, aimed for the deer’s heart, and released the string. The arrow arced through the air, and lodged in the animal’s throat. It sank to its knees. Dinner was served.

I’ll give you another example.

Telling: Elizabeth went to the woodshed to get the ax. She swung with all her strength and cleaved the stump in two.

It feels strange because Elizabeth goes to the woodshed, but then the next thing we know she’s swinging the ax at the stump.

Showing: Elizabeth went to the woodshed, and yanked the ax from where it hung on the wall. She stormed back to the stump, ignoring George’s I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk. She swung with all her strength and cleaved the stump in two. Take that, George. She didn’t need any man’s help to survive.

You don’t need to do a blow by blow of every step your character takes, but removing the to construct forces you to think about a passage, and find deeper, more engaging ways to convey what’s happening.

Linking Verbs

We want to avoid linking verbs like was and is in favor of stronger, more active verbs, but we also want to avoid them because they can indicate telling rather than showing.

Telling: She was ugly.

Showing: Richard couldn’t stop himself from staring at the button-sized wart in the middle of her forehead. Even if she didn’t want it removed, couldn’t she have at least plucked the hair?

One or two carefully selected details will dynamically show us that a person is old or ugly, cruel or a flirt. Moreover, showing also gives us insight into the point of view character. What our characters notice and how they choose to describe it says a lot about them.

But won’t showing make our writing wordy?

No, not necessarily. Tight writing has less to do with the number of words used and more to do with making every word count. (Click here if you’d like to tweet that.)

Next week I’m going to look at when we should save the words and tell rather than show.

What other ways have you found to eliminate telling in your writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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