A Simple Show vs. Tell Troubleshoot

Telling a story when one ought to be showing it is one of the most common mistakes I see in writing of all stages. But don’t worry. Last night, as I was eating my steak and rice dinner (yum), two things hit me: how to spot when you’re telling and how to easily transform it into showing.

Now, if you need to know more about the basics of “show don’t tell”, I’ll direct you here. But for the sake of this post, I’ll assume you know the basics.

Telling can come in micro, word-level scales.

Ex: He’s nice. Here, the word “nice” is telling the reader something about a character
without showing what makes that character “nice”. As such, we fail to
convince the reader the character actually IS nice.

And it comes in macro, character/plot/motivation/setting/etc.-level scales.

Ex: When we tell the reader a character’s motivation for an action without actually showing that motivation.
As such, we fail to convince the reader of the character’s chosen course of action.

The key word mentioned twice above is “convincing”. That’s what showing is all about, guys, and ultimately, it’s what storytelling is all about too. We want to convince the reader that this story could happen, and we must convince them that it would happen this way based on how we’ve convinced them our characters and world behave.

Phew, that sounds way more complicated than it is. Basically, each step leads to the next:

  1. We begin by convincing the reader of how the characters and world behaves.
  2. This in turn allows us to convince the reader that our characters would truly make the choices they make.
  3. And then, as the story unfolds from our character’s choices, the reader is convinced enough by the choices and characters and world for the story to feel “real”.

And of course, the way we convince readers is by showing them the story.

Finding the “Telling” Spots

But how do you know when you’re not convincing the reader? Well, in all honesty, it can be really hard to spot your own slip-ups. We feel who our characters are, and we’re convinced. As such, we can’t always see when we haven’t convinced our readers.

And that’s why you need critique partners. Or, if you’re not ready to take that step (and it’s totally fine if you’re not), you need to take a nice, long break from your manuscript. Distance will help you return to the story with fresh, unconvinced eyes.

As you read a story, look for any moments where you simply don’t feel convinced. Those are the moments that are being told to you and instead must be shown.

Now, just to quickly note: don’t worry if showing is something you find difficult to master. NO ONE MASTERS IT. I still do it all the freakin’ time in my early drafts, and so do ALL of my experienced author friends. That’s why we critique each other and look for these inevitable tricky spots.

Fixing the “Telling” Spots

I could talk about how to fix “telling” areas for pages and pages and pages. But I won’t do that to you. Instead, here’s this idea that literally popped into my brain as I chomped on my medium rare steak of deliciousness last night–and this solution all boils down to something we do EVERYDAY in conversation.

It began with a story my husband was telling me (and the labels and adjectives have been changed for privacy’s sake. ;)) about a foreign acquaintance of his who he doesn’t particularly enjoy spending time with.

“She’s so snobby,” my husband said.

“Oh? How so?” I asked.

“She always finds something to complain about–the food isn’t cooked like they do it in her country. Or Americans can’t drive. The worst was when she asked me if the water was safe to drink–this is a first world country! Of course the water is safe to drink!”

First off, kudos to my French husband for getting so defensive about America. Holla.

Second off, notice how his opening sentence declaring this woman “snobby” was TELLING me and not showing me.

So, as humans often do in conversation when someone throws out a blanket statement, I asked, “How?” and my husband proceeded to list all the things this lady does that make her such a snob. He CONVINCED me of her snobbiness by SHOWING me all the ways she behaves like one.

And right there–that’s our solution to telling. We simply ask ourselves basic questions like “How?” or “What does he/she do?” or “What makes it that way?” Those are fundamental questions we ask all the time in conversation, and they push us to show the story when we chat with our neighbor…so why not use those same questions to show our story to our readers?

Next time you spot a “telling” area in your story or your critique partner points a problem out, then simply phrase the issue as if it were a conversation with your buddy. For example,

Problem Phrase → Dave was a nice guy, and everyone at the office really liked him.

Question to ask yourself  → How is Dave nice? What does he do that makes everyone at the office like him?

Possible answers Dave volunteers at the local animal shelter and always tells funny stories about the critters. He also makes a cake for every single colleague’s birthday, and when he asks how someone’s day is, he actually listens to the answer.

Once you know the HOW and the WHY, you can find ways to work that into your story. Maybe when Dave is first introduced, he’s carrying a cake for someone’s birthday, but he’s wearing a bandage on his hand because one of the shelter dogs bit him the day before. Yet despite the bandaged hand, he made this cake–and now, despite holding the heavy cake, he pauses at our hero’s cubicle to ask how it’s going.

Et voilà. Dave is now SHOWN to be a nice guy and the reader is (hopefully) convinced of it.

You tell me: Have you ever read stories that didn’t convince you? Do you think it was an issue of being told one thing but not being shown it?