Show, don’t tell


I forgot to post on Tuesday (again. sigh.) so I’m posting today, instead.

My excuse is I’ve been working on critiques all week. Critiques and I are an interesting clash. I kind of like doing them, but–with exceptions like this, when I’m doing it for the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop at which I’ll be teaching next week–I rarely make time to, even if I say I will. I am not a good critique partner in that sense. At all. And I know it, so I don’t volunteer, or ask people to critique my work, because I know I won’t get around to returning the favor.

On the other hand, I’m reasonably good at it. My friend Sarah and I had a writing teacher once who would say he wasn’t being paid enough to lie to us. I try not to be quite that, um, blunt, in my critiques, but there’s a fair degree of needfulness in that. Utterly pussyfooting around doesn’t do anybody any good. And one of the things I’ve learned about critiquing in general is that up-and-coming writers often need to focus on “show, don’t tell”.

That’s one of those phrases that gets bandied around all over the place, and it’s bloody hard to properly explain. It’s even hard to describe to a new writer without actually taking their own words and rewriting them (which, er, is what I usually do, in that situation). I think I learned my own lesson about show-don’t-tell when I was writing IMMORTAL BELOVED, a Highlander novel (see how I tied that in with David and Misty’s postings, eh? eh? am I clevar or *what*?) I wrote about ten years ago. At about 40,000 words into what I imagined would be a 100,000 word book, I had already written 2/3rds of the story. So I had to go back and rewrite and *show* things: get into the guts and the details and expose them to the world, rather than just relate what was happening. At the time I didn’t think of it as anything like that. It’s just in retrospect I think that’s probably when something clicked in my leetle brain.

So now I’m going to try to give an example of show versus tell, to see if it’s of any use at all to anyone. 🙂


Rodin ran up the stairs in the tower to the locked door. His heart pounded and he heaved for air. A wooden bird was at the top. Rodin poured water on its head and it sang, making the door open. It opened and on its other side was a beautiful princess.


The tower steps went on forever, hard granite edges catching Rodin’s toes as he stumbled from weariness. Too much water had sloshed from the birchwood bucket he carried: there was barely enough to perform the task set to him, and not nearly enough to slake his thirst. His thighs burned and breath came raw in his throat, as if the stale air pulled blood from his lungs when he dragged it in.

Endless curves finally circled to the tower’s solitary room, blocked by a threatening iron door. Torchlight danced shadows over the curving walls and illuminated the room’s solitary guardian: a nightingale, carved of dark shining wood. Rodin staggered to a halt a few steps below it, half uncertain the delicate bird could be all that stood between himself and his goal, and all disbelieving that the spell he’d been given would work. A glance back down the stairs reminded him of what he’d come through to be here: fairy tales or not, he would at least try his hand at breaking the spell.

His hands shook as he poured the water. A few drops beaded on the bird’s finely-shaped head; the rest absorbed into the dark wood as if it was desert sand, hungry for liquid’s touch. For a few seconds nothing happened, and defeat slumped his slender shoulders. One thousand and one steps; he had counted. One thousand and one steps up, and that many to go down again.

The nightingale tipped its head back and sang a note, pure and sweet as the spring water he’d carried from below. Rodin yelled and scampered down a few steps, the bird’s trill following him like laughter on a breeze. It spread its wings with a rustle of thin wood: feathers detailed in chisel marks caught the air, and its voice lifted further still.

Ancient and blackened iron began to crumble.

There you go. An object lesson in show versus tell. And I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting the princess to be waiting arms akimbo and with a pencil stuck through an unruly mop of hair and an ink smudge on a freckled nose. What do you think? 🙂


9 comments to Show, don’t tell

  • Beatriz


    Where were you when I was struggling to teach this to my 8th graders?

    In class, I usually ended up having them read aloud a favorite paragraph or two of a well-loved book. 99% of the time it was a fine example of show, not tell. Then we’d put it up on the overhead and talk about it in class– and I would send ’em back to their works in progress to get to re-writing.

  • My first drafts used to consist largely of Tell.

    My current WIP (first draft stage) is still about 1/3 Tell at the halfway point of my expected word count. (Already I despair of my wordcount’s accuracy.) However, since I believe I undersold my wordcount (100,000) if I can manage to eliminate all of the Tell and end up not topping 150,000 I’ll be happy.

    Great example of Tell and Show, by the way.

  • Catie, this is the best example of *show-don’t-tell* I’ve seen. This is the kind of techinique demonstration that the people at SCWW need to see. I’ve done the conference several times since the early 90s (Misty and David have attended several times too) and this most basic bit of knowledge can make or break the sales the attendees hare hoping for.

    You go girl!

  • Beatriz, please feel free to use this in your class, if it’ll help!

    Faith, I’m not doing a show v. tell class next week, although I’m doing a class on voice, which I can use this in. If you end up going back to teach there in the future, as I told Beatriz, please feel free to use this.

    Wow, I’m glad this was useful. I felt so lame after missing Tuesday’s post.

  • You are not lame at all, dear! You just have too many things in your head at one time.

    Wonderful post – I’m in full agreement with Faith and Bea. It couldn’t hurt to throw a little of that in with your “Voice” class. *grin*

    Speaking of SCWW, have a wonderful time in Myrtle Beach! I wish I could be there to hang out with you, but I’m scheduled to dance both days that weekend. Tell everybody I said “Hey!”

  • Yes, have a great time at the conference. This was a terrific post, even with the dig at my post title (I’ll never do anything creative with a post title again…so there). Wonderful example.

    And for the record, I feel the same way about critiquing — it’s one of the reasons I’ve never been a big one for writing groups.

  • Oh dear, I need to go back and do this to all my stories… thanks so much for that.

  • David said, “This was a terrific post, even with the dig at my post title (I’ll never do anything creative with a post title again…so there).”

    We love you, David! 😀

  • Beatriz

    Poor David! ~passes over a Cadbury Carmello bar~

    Thanks, Catie, for the offer. If I ever go back to teaching public school, I plan on getting my little darlings hooked on Faith’s, David’s, Misty’s and your works. ~rubs hands together, maniacal laughter~ Corrupting…errr… educating… a new generation of readers!