Posts Tagged ‘show versus tell’

I recently became aware of…I guess you’d call it a game, called “Tom Swifties.” The idea is to see how many examples you can come up with of the kind of writing that was used in the old Tom Swift books, i.e., Adverbs Gone Wild. I was horrified to learn that I am rather good at it. Some examples of my own:

  • “Your axe has hit me in the chest,” Tom said half-heartedly.
  • “There is no one staying in this hotel,” Tom said vacantly.
  • “I understand it all now,” Tom said comprehensively.

I said I was horrified. Now, these are quite silly (and believe me, there are worse), but at the same time they do show up a major problem that even highly-successful writers have: the use of adverbs to describe characters’ feelings. In other words, they are telling instead of showing.

“Show, don’t tell,” was one of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer, mostly because no one could explain it to me. Now I understand, and I try hard not to make this mistake. It’s very easy once you see an example of it: Instead of saying, “Tom said vacantly,” you write, “Tom said with a faraway look in his eye,” or “Tom said, staring into space,” or some other description of Tom’s actions. If you can stay out of Tom’s head, you’ll do fine. And that’s all there is to showing instead of telling.

When I was younger, I tried to imitate writers I liked, and usually made a hash of it. It took years to develop my own style, to stop trying to be someone else.

Ironically, I’d still like to be Tom Swift. Maybe he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but he had the coolest adventures this side of Jonny Quest.



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After I promised to write this post, I became scared. Who was I to explain the mysteries of writing? How could I describe something that had taken me so long to understand? I was at times agitated, resigned, but finally I focused on the task at hand, and here I am.

Wait a second. Hold on. Let’s start over again, take it from the top.

After I promised to write this post, my brain refused to comprehend the enormity of the task. I started to sweat. My feet tapped out a frenzied beat in time with a band only I could hear, and my fingers drummed the desk. When I tired of this at last, I stared at the wall, my shoulders slumped, and sighed. Eventually, I put my fingers on the keyboard and with a deep breath, I stared to type.

This is the essence of showing versus telling. In the first paragraph, I told you how I felt. All the information was provided, you were a passive recipient. This is what I call the “television method” of writing. There’s nothing wrong with it–if you’re watching television.

The second paragraph, where I showed you how I felt by describing my actions, that’s what I call “radio writing.” In radio, as in a book, the listener can’t see your characters. He can only understand their actions by their words and sound effects. And it’s the sound effects that make all the difference.

Which would you rather listen to? A radio play wherein a character says, “Bob! Thank heavens you were able to break down the door and rescue me by throwing away the dynamite seconds before it exploded!” or Crash! Running feet! “Bob! There’s a bomb!” Running feet. Kaboom! “Bob! Thank heaven you got here in time!” Actions speak louder than words, and action words speak louder than anything.

Readers can only see your words on the page. Let the words you choose be the reader’s eyes into your story.

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