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Copyright 2009-2010 E. A. Hill  All rights reserved.

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Choosing Words to Create Worlds

Fiction writers are hammered with the admonition to show and not tell.

Writing teachers pound it into us.  Books on writing repeat it until we feel we've been beaten.  And if we're brave enough to put our work in front of our peers for review, we are pounded yet again—Show, Don't Tell, our critics intone.

Great.  I've already added 10 more adjectives per page.  Isn't that enough showing?  I can only paint the night sky so many shades of lavender and violet.

Here is the doorway if not the key for many new writers—showing is not the same as description.  A writer may paint a clear and colorful scene but still be telling rather than showing.

Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside.  But he remains outside.  Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop.  The reader will feel the stretch in taffy, maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses.

            Telling is impersonal
            Showing is intimate

            Telling is aloof
            Showing is up close

            Telling is an essay about a vacation trip
            Showing is going on the trip

Telling is often a simple recitation of he did, she was, I felt.  Too much of this and the reader loses interest.

An example:

Marie walked into the room.  She looked at the blue walls and the torn curtains at the window.  She was afraid.  In the sink were a rusted pot and two dirty glasses.  The room made her feel both anxious and nostalgic.


Marie stepped into the kitchen, faltering at seeing the deep blue murals on the walls and ceiling.  She shivered.  The dark color absorbed the morning sunshine that filtered through frayed curtains.

Drawn to the sweet odor rising from the sink, she stepped close.  She ran a finger over the porcelain; still smooth after all these years.

"Damn!"  Marie yanked her hand out of the sink.  She picked at the Teflon flakes embedded in her index finger.

"Stupid frying pan."

Both offer nearly the same information.  Yet the mood created—the intimacy level—differs.



If you find yourself skipping long sections of a novel, chances are those passages are all tell and no show—you've not been invited in, so you pass over the text.

In your own writing, look for clues in words and phrases:  Use of is and was and were, especially there is, there was, and there were; has, had, felt, and thought; uses of always (I always ate ice cream after a good murder); use of and then or used to.

Such words and phrases are not always inappropriate, but their use or overuse warrants a second look.



Is there a use for telling in fiction?  Of course!  Declarative phrases can be powerful when used appropriately. 

Use telling in narrative summary at the beginning of a scene to indicate a new setting or the passage of time.

Tell in brief spurts to shock the reader, to make a phrase stand out, or to bring a scene to a sudden and complete stop.  This can be particularly effective when a brief sentence is used as a paragraph.

                        I froze when I saw the gun in his hand.

Telling can work well as a throwaway tag line for the end of a chapter.

                        The clock began its ominous tolling.

And sometimes you can use telling to change the tone or to reveal character.  Think private detectives who recite every detail of a new client's appearance--Her long legs were. . . ; her skirt fell just below her. . . ; her tear-filled eyes blinked. . .   Such a section, usually brief, is used to slow the pace of a suspense or murder story and to allow the P.I. to show off his smart mouth.


If you must include long stretches of telling (and must you?), break them up with dialogue or thoughts, or vary the sentence length.

Show to engage the reader.

Tell to impart information or stop the story.

Show and Tell.  Use both.  And use them well.

© 2007 E. A. Hill