That's Really Telling in Disguise

Sunday, September 29, 2013
How would you show this? Tell us! :)
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is the old show vs. tell advice that we all hear and give in critique groups and online classes. It is true that showing what a character is feeling or doing is more interesting to read than being told by the author. It's also true that showing usually takes more words and more thought than telling. But one other point I've been thinking about lately and discussing with my online students and critique group members are sentences where we, as writers, think we are showing, when we are actually still telling.

For example:  Amy's face showed her enthusiasm.

What does that mean exactly? I'm guessing Amy is smiling--probably a big smile that includes her entire face with her eyes opened wide even. So, why don't we just say that?

Saying that a face shows enthusiasm is not showing, it's telling. If I was critiquing your story, I would probably write in a comment in the sidebar: "And this looks like???" I would rather you write a sentence like:

Amy grinned and opened her eyes wide. 

Now, I can see Amy showing her enthusiasm.

Here are some more examples of this point that I've seen lately. How would you fix these? (Really, I would love to read your ideas in the comments)
  • Andre looked tired.
  • You could see the tension in her body.
  • Monique was always ready for an adventure.
One other thing I'll point out--it is impossible to write an entire novel (or even a short story perhaps) where you have shown 100 percent of everything. If you do this, your novel will most likely be SLOW and HARD TO GET THROUGH. You will have to tell some things. I read an article recently, and I wish I could remember where exactly, that mentioned your writing should be about 80 percent showing and 20 percent telling. For example, it's okay to tell the reader that Bob is Amanda's uncle--you don't have to show that by showing the family tree--that would take too long. But if you want to let the reader know that Amanda is angry with her uncle, then show us: Amanda cursed Uncle Bob.

photo credit: Emerald Lake Joe Kopp (

So, how do you handle showing vs telling in your work? Can you fix my three sentences above?

Margo teaches for the WOW! Women On Writing classroom. Her upcoming classes are Writing a Novel with a Writing Coach: One on One Instruction (10/4), Writing Short Fiction for Children and Teens (10/7), and Writing a Children's or Young Adult Novel (10/15). For more details, go to the link:  .


Kathy Steinemann said...

Andre looked tired.
Andre slumped over the table, his head in his hands. He could barely keep his eyes open.

You could see the tension in her body.
Her body was rigid, and she shook as she drank her coffee.

Monique was always ready for an adventure.
Without hesitation, Monique stepped out of the airplane and soared through the air. She waited until the last possible moment before she pulled the ripcord.

Margo Dill said...

Kathy: Brilliant! And thanks for playing along. :) Love your examples.

Marilyn said...

Andre looked tired.
Andre's eyes were telling with deep dark gray circles from the lower lids to his cheekbones. His face seemed to sag with the weight of his burden.

You could see the tension in her body.
Her back was ramrod straight, while her jaw was tight enough to pop, lips pressed together so hard they were nearly white.

Monique was always ready for an adventure.
Monique's eyes lit up at the prospect of something new and daring, untested and just waiting for her.

Marilyn said...

Fun, Margo!

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo said...

How fun! Thanks for the exercise :)

Andre yawned.

She stiffened.

I think this last one's fine. It would make a great closing line to a first chapter . . .

Margo Dill said...

Marilyn: Thanks for checking it out.

Elizabeth: I never really thought of it being a last line of a chapter, but you are right--given the circumstance, it could be quite a hook. :)

Unknown said...

Okay, I have to try before looking at anyone else's descriptions.

Andre looked tired.

Andre's shoulders sagged. He rubbed the point between his eyebrows, closing his eyes. He sighed.

You could see the tension in her body.

She gripped the arms of her chair, knuckles whitening. She pressed her lips together in a pale, thin line and held her breath.

Monique was always ready for an adventure.

Monique bounced on her toes, her eyes sparkling, her even teeth showing in a wide grin.

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