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The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

You’ve heard the classic writing rule, “Show. Don’t Tell.” Every writing blog ever has talked about it, and for good reason. Showing, for some reason, is really difficult.

Telling is one of the hardest habits to eradicate from your style. I still struggle with it regularly. However, writing that shows is so much more interesting than writing that tells that it’s worth doing the work.

And the good news is that it’s pretty easy to show if you just learn this one trick.

Show Don't Tell

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Be More Specific

The simplest rule to remember if you’re trying to show is just to be specific. Specificity will fill in the gaps from your telling and bring life to your scenes. Let me give you an example of how being specific will help you show.

Here’s a very tell-y example:

They went to New York to see Cats. They both enjoyed it very much. When they tried to go home, their flight was delayed because of the snow so they stayed another night and decided to see the musical again.

That’s a fun story. A great trip to the city could be ruined by the weather, but they make the most of it. It’s all pretty vague, though, isn’t it?  Who is they? What theater did they see Cats at? Why did they enjoy it? How did they feel after their flight was delayed?

To show rather than tell, you have to interrogate your story. You have to be more specific.

Here’s that example with some of those questions answered:

Tanya and James flew to New York city in a 747. They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms. “I can’t wait to see the show,” Tanya said. “You’re going to love it.” James shook his head. “I don’t get it. It’s about Cats who sing and dance? Sounds sorta dumb.” Tanya smiled, “Just trust me.”

Their hotel was just a few blocks from the Foxwoods Theater so they walked. He had never seen buildings so tall or so many people walking on the street. When they got to the theater, Tanya noticed his eyes were a little wider, his mouth a little slacker. The foyer was covered in gold and white marble, with hundreds of people milling around in gowns and beautiful suits. He didn’t talk much. Finally, they took their seats, and the lights went down. He took her hand.

….

Let’s stop there. Once you get specific your story can get a lot longer.

But that’s a little better, right? Instead of “they,” we now see Tanya and James. We know a little more about them, that Tanya is a little more cultured, while James is more wary of it. We get a glimpse of the theater.

Interrogate Your Story

There’s still more room for specificity, though, which is why you always have to interrogate your story.

What was their flight like? Why is James so awed by New York? What’s the nature of their relationship?

Here’s another example with some of those questions filled in with specificity:

Tanya and James flew to New York in a 747. Tanya drank club sod and James had ginger ale. “Can I have the whole can?” he said. When they in LaGuardia, James turned to her and said, “Just so you know, that was the first time I’ve ever flown anywhere.”

“What?” said Tanya. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to know I hadn’t left Oklahoma.”

She took his hand and kissed it and held it to her cheek.

“I’ll still love you, even if you are an Okie hillbilly.”

They both smiled and he kissed her.

….

That’s definitely more specific, but it’s also getting longer. We haven’t even gotten to the theater yet.

I hope you see by now that every story is like an accordion. You can get infinitely more specific, but the consequence of specificity is length. While you should want to be more specific, to show more than you tell, you’ll need to cut the detail that doesn’t add to your story.

Be more specific, but don’t bore us.

PRACTICE

Rewrite the following story by being more specific.

They went to Los Angeles to see his parents.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, please give some feedback to a few other writers. I hope this is a community that helps each other improve.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • Jmfthird

    Ricky went with Bill in his old brown Ford sedan affectionatel known as “S–twagon II” to see Bill’s parents, both now retired, whom Bill hadn’t seen in eight years. Bill remarked as they got on interstate 20, “gawd, you can’t even get on the flippin’ highway without takin’ your life in your hands,” narrowly missing sideswiping a truck with a utility bed on it. That was nothing to the gridlock they would encounter nine hours later in the City of the Angels. It was, however, a very entertaining trip in between. They stopped at Carlsbad Caverns long enough to learn that the bat population is now endangered by some sort of strange disease called “white nose”. The one hitch-hiker they saw, whom they declined to stop for, looked like your garden variety wandering serial murderer. We are in search of the REAL America, they joked. The summer heat was in the strength of its youth and their air-conditioner was a model 4-80: four windows cranked all the way down at eighty miles per hour. They took turns driving when one or the other felt fatigued, and listened to the classic rock of their youth on a series of FM radio stations, finding the music of the Grateful Dead especially fitting; but when they found a retrospective on Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks on an L.A. area station, that sent them to their destination in high style. “I think they’ll be glad to see me, but they may not know me so well anymore,” Bill told Ricky as they pulled in the driveway of the small, well-kept cottage. The puzzlement Ricky detected in Mom and Dad donfirmed what Bill had said.

    • http://twitter.com/pootlesuzie Suzie Gallagher

      love this – garden variety wandering serial murderer
      well done

    • Mhvest

      I like “the summer heat was in the strength of its youth” and because these are middle aged men in a car that one would expect a teenager to drive.

    • Yvette Carol

      Yeah it’s got a nice flow!

    • Zo-zo

      Yes, I agree with Yvette, good flow, and great description that is pertinent and quirky.

  • Jay

    Show doesn’t have to be longer than tell, it just has to make us feel it. So, rather than just saying a character was caught in the rain and got soaked, we might describe how his shoes filled up with water so that they squelched at every step.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      That’s a good point, Jay. It depends on exactly how specific you want to get with your showing. There IS such a thing as too much specificity. A few chosen details are better than a waterfall of information.

  • http://twitter.com/pootlesuzie Suzie Gallagher

    The sun was setting as the plane landed in Los Angeles. The cabin was infused with a golden orange glow. Celebrity hoped was a good omen and squeezed Wayne’s arm to waken him.

    Security took forever, Celebrity’s newly coiffured hair was becoming limper than the lettuce left forgotten at the bottom of the crisper. That was the problem, Celebrity thought, I have a name that totally sucks, I am desperately trying to make a good first impression with Wayne’s parents and it really doesn’t matter because my name got there first.

    The hair, the new linen suit, strike that, the new crumpled in a heap linen suit, the Jimmy Choo’s that were killing, all of it didn’t matter because her silly, fussy, manic mother once was friends with a woman called Mia with strange named children and she got landed with the stupidest name in the history of stupid names.

    And Wayne’s parents had already judged her, and what was the point anyway, I want to go home, she could feel her eyes smart. No way, I am not having mascara run. Where did Wayne go?

    Oh I love this man, she smugly smiled as he handed her a bottle of water and a napkin. “Come on Ceely, mom and dad aren’t that bad. They made me. And I love you, honey more than chocolate chilli ice cream, more than anything,” Wayne held Celebrity whilst whispering in her ear.

    • Mhvest

      What a great idea for a story here, Suzie. What a horrible name, Celebrity. I like the words “limper than lettuce left in the crisper” the alliteration draws attention and then you have the contrast of limper and crisper. Great!

      • http://twitter.com/pootlesuzie Suzie Gallagher

        thanks, this is the story though, there is no more.

        I am composing vignettes of different characters, attached to different characters and scenarios.

        I can’t settle to write a “story”

  • Tom Cavanaugh

    Bags packed. Coach class. Middle seat. If moving back home wasn’t bad enough. “Great. You get the window while I am stuck in the middle.” Joe said as he took his seat in row 16. “How is it that you always luck out?”

    James, still staring at the luggage being thrown in the plane. “I wish they’d take their time. I have a bottle of scotch for your dad in mine. It was already aged in an oak-barrel, I can do without a few hours in a cotton T-shirt.”

    Joe looks up. Two gigantic Samoans slide sideways down the aisle. Joe hits the back of the chair in front of him where James sat. “You know these guys are going to sit in this row. It always happens.”

    The Samoans slowed near row 14 and put their bags above. They slowly walked past 15 and stopped. The one in front glanced at his ticket again and they continued moving.

    The plane fills up and Joe is greeted by an older, petite lady who takes up the window seat.

    A small victory.

    Almost.

    A last-minute addition takes up the seat. His gate, through the seeping sweat of his clothes, must have been a half-mile away. He removes a 6” tuna fish sandwich from Subway and lifts up the armrest.

    The 5-hour flight to Los Angeles to visit his parents could not get much worse.

    The lady turns towards the man who just arrived and notices his sweat-filled University of Maryland shirt.

    “You know my daughter went there,” the lady said. “Now her son attends there. I have dozens of stories on that beautiful campus.”

    The man commanding the aisle seat leans over and smile. “Well, I think making a friend and sharing stories is a wonderful way to ease this treacherous flight time.”

    • Zo-zo

      Hahaha!! This made me laugh. My favourite paragraph is the seeping sweat clothes and tuna fish!

  • mlhatcher

    For me, giving the details of what it is like to be at that particular moment and experiencing what is going on is what it is all about. How else could anyone share in what the emotion is and have the imagination develop throughout the scene, if it were not written out to give the complete picture. In my mind, it is a necessity to give the full measure of detail, so that the moment can be shared and explored. Is that not what the beauty of writing is all about.

  • Maven

    The essence of show not tell is to get into the skin of your characters. That is, not to describe all the detail of what a tiger looks and smells like when it’s right in front of you, but rather to convey the feeling of facing a tiger. Paradoxically, this can often be more economical than the telling version.

    • Jeannie Miernik

      Yes, I agree. The more potent the language, the less of it you need. Ernest Hemingway is one example of an author who could pack more story AND more intimacy into fewer words.

      Also, you can start later if what happens at that later point makes it clear what has happened before. That allows more space to insert the important details. For example, you could start right off with, “The flight was delayed because of the snow, so Tanya and James stayed another night and decided to see The Cats again.” The reader already knows from this sentence that the couple traveled and that they’ve already seen the play once. If the good stuff in this story happens in the couple’s conversation after seeing the play a second time, this might be an even better place to start.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Eh I don’t know about that. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you. I think in general talking about emotions is more on the tell side than the show side. I prefer to show emotions through description of setting rather than inner monologue. Am I wrong?

      • Yvette Carol

        Well Joe in the course I took recently they taught us to show emotion through minor physical appearance changes. Also, through actions and then sometimes you can add in a thought or two as well. I really like your notion, that you can show emotion through setting of scene. I have definitely started using that since joining this group.

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          That’s a great point, Yvette. I prefer action over physical appearance though.

    • Mhvest

      I don’t understand. If you describe at tiger being in front of someone with enough clarity wouldn’t the reader then be able to feel the emotion that the protagonist is feeling?

      • Maven

        Best example I can give is from Vertigo, where Raymond Massey tries to throw Jimmy Stewart out the window. Hitchcock shot this in a bunch of confusing close-ups. A studio exec asked why he couldn’t do it with some long establishing shots to make the details clearer. Hitchcock said, “Because, when somebody is pushing you out of a window, the clear details are the last thing on your mind.”

        If you describe the tiger with 25o words of detail, you’re implying the calm viewpoint of a Mr Spock. See the point?

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          That’s a really good point, Maven. And I love that example. You could do it with 5 words, or you could do it with more if you used stream of consciousness and pinged different details: the black eyes, the three inch teeth, the claws sinking into flesh, the blood, the rumbling of its growls, the sound of ripping clothes and flesh.

        • Mhvest

          Do you have any examples from writing? In film everything is show by definition. The great fear in that movie, and I think you mean Rear Window rather than Vertigo was on James Stewart’s face as the guy threw him out and he tried to hang on. Maybe that’s why people often like movies better than books, but then a lot of people who see a movie after reading a good book are disappointed.

  • Marianne

    They went to Los Angeles to see his parents in a rental car at Christmas. It was a Ford SUV and since they both drove Toyotas they went for several miles in the cold Virginia winter, before Sarah figured out how to turn the heat on.
    “Everything’s on the wrong side in this car, “ she said. The cold was making her fussy.
    “Yeah they should give lessons before they put you in one, but this has a lot more room than the Corolla,” said Jason. “It smells like it’s brand new.”
    Jason thought the drive would take five days, which would give them four days to stay with his parents in their stucco, three-bedroom home on Kenwood Ave. in the historic distract of Los Angeles.
    “Are there really palm trees?” said Sarah.
    “Yeah, there aren’t any in our yard but there are some on the street, different kinds. My parents wanted to stick to trees that went with the house which is kind of a fake tudor.”
    Sarah looked out the window at empty brown fields and filthy feed lots under gray skies and imagined a sunny city with neat lawns and lots of palm trees. They passed a farm house with a three metal and plastic pink flamingos in the yard.
    They stopped in West Virginia to eat, at the Sky Inn, a restaurant recommended by AAA, and were seated in the only vacant booth which was by the door. Each time the door opened a frigid mountain wind blew across their booth, chilling the formica table top. Sarah looked at her fuzzy red gloves and wondered if she could eat with them on her hands. She looked at Jason who seemed unperturbed by the cold. He gave her a wide smile.
    “I like traveling,” he said.
    “Me too, but it’s cold.”
    “Want to change sides?”
    “No sit by me and keep me warm.”
    They ordered bar-b-que sandwiches with slaw and fries. Jason took the Tabasco Sauce and dripped the orangish liquid on his the shredded pork. Then he added some slaw, put the top of the bun back on, and took a huge bite. He smiled out of the corner of his eyes at Sarah.
    “Good,” he mumbled with his mouth full.
    Sarah took off her gloves and ate her fries one by one after dipping them in a circle of ketchup. She leaned into Jason as she ate, trying to absorb the warmth of him though his polartec jacket, and thinking about a warm Christmas.

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      I love the description here! Especially the paragraph about West Virginia. I can really see the frigid mountain wind.

      Katie

      • Mhvest

        Thanks Katie

    • Yvette Carol

      Oh the simple beauty of the blessed details! A clear scene and believable characters. Nicely rendered Marianne :-)

      • Mhvest

        Thank you very much Yvette Carol

  • Yvette Carol

    Thanks for the tip about specificity. Yes, I’m guilty of cutting back a lot of times on specifics, because I want to get on with the story!

  • Rachel Pierce

    I went a little bit over the time limit, but here’s what I wound up with.

    She had been expecting more traffic. Sara had never been to Los Angeles. Never been outside of the American Southwest. The heat was expected. Welcome. The palm trees, but as the taxi speeds down 101, the knot in her stomach grows tighter.

    “They’re going to love you,” Jason says. He kisses her temple, his calm, cool words flowing down her sweat-stained back like a waterfall. Reassuring and refreshing. Never changing. She thinks of the waterfall back home in Arizona. Their secret place.

    Breathe.

    “I thought there would be more traffic,” she says, struggling to keep the panic out of her voice. ‘I thought we would have more time,’ she says to herself.

    Jason takes hold of her hand as the taxi driver exits the freeway. Sara thinks briefly about how her hand is sweaty and he might notice, but then the worry passes as they drive up and around the winding hills. She holds on tighter. On either side of the drive gated homes rise around them. At the top of the hill the driver stops in front of a pale green stucco.

    A woman in a kelly green top and not-quite-age-appropriate jean shorts bursts out of the front door. She looks just like the pictures. Animated and full of life.

    Jason squeezes Sara’s hand. Her eyes search for his deep brown ones.

    “We’re okay,” he tells her. The waterfall pushes her out the car door and carries her onto the grassy lawn, bringing a bright smile to her face.

  • http://www.bethszimmerman.com/ Beth Zimmerman

    Dan hadn’t been home in years. He could still hear the door slamming in his mind as he stormed out after one fight too many with his father. The man had expected, demanded, too much from all of his children. Especially his oldest son. And Dan had failed. Again. As he had thrown the hastily packed duffel bag into the passenger seat of his pickup truck the front door had opened and his father had stepped out on the porch.

    “Daniel!”

    He slammed the door and walked defiantly around his truck..

    “Daniel! Do NOT leave! If you leave now … don’t bother to come back! You won’t be welcome!”

    Dan threw his body into the driver’s seat and sat for a moment with both hands on the wheel staring straight ahead at nothing. Then he reached, with grim determination into the pocket of his jeans, pulled out his keys, and removed his house key from the ring. He jammed the truck key into the ignition and heard his mother scream, “NO!” just as the engine turned over and caught. He pushed the switch to roll down the passenger window and tossed his house key onto the grassy front lawn. Then he shook his head and drove away.

    10 years and neither of them had moved an inch. Such stubborn men they were. His mother had begged him often over the years to make the first move, to apologize and come home. Why had it been so important to him to stand his ground? To refuse to give in? He had been so determined to make the unyielding man suffer and repent. To outlast his father.

    He’d outlasted him alright! At what cost? Now the man lay dying in a hospital and his mother had tracked him down to warn him that this might be his last chance. At first he had claimed not to care but Shelly saw right through his bravado. She always did. So she had quietly packed suitcases and called airlines. Now here they were on a crowded airplane from Kenya to Los Angeles. Shelly slept quietly beside him as he stared out at the clouds and wrestled with his past.

    • Zo-zo

      I love the sound of the door slamming in your second line, drawing us in. Also, I like the contrast between Shelly’s calm ‘quietly packed suitcases’ and Dan’s chaos. ’10 years and neither of them had moved an inch’ is a great line – but maybe a scene that Dan remembered which proves this would have been more powerful than his thoughts…? Those are my thoughts!

  • Zo-zo

    The plane had small windows, June thought. She had thought that the windows in planes would be bigger and brighter, that you’d see the whole city from that view. But no, all you got was a piece of sky.

    She sighed and popped her gum. ‘I don’t know if I’m going to like her.’

    Matt blinked at his newspaper.

    ‘She’s obese.’

    ‘I didn’t say that, I just said she’s not as skinny as you.’ He moved his hand towards his pocket, but then remembered he couldn’t smoke. ‘And she doesn’t like skinny girls.’

    As they arrived at his parent’s door, June’s only expectation was to be shunned. She looked at the wreath. A little bluebird sat on a brown twig grinning at them. Matt shook his head. ‘It’s been here for twenty years.’

    Matt banged the knocker furiously, on and on and on. She poked him and rolled her eyes. He just carried on.

    Finally a huge man with a grizzly bear beard flung the door open, nearly knocking himself out.

    ‘Mattie’s home!’ He yelled, his voice real deep, but with a bounce in it too.

    June smiled as he closed in on Matt and they man-hugged. It started out as a good hug, but then it just became embarrassing so she pushed them apart and stuck her hand out to greet him. ‘June’s the name.’

    Grizzly bear started laughing, and then pushed her close to his chest. ‘Oh we don’t do handshakes,’ he said.

    June thought he held on for a little too long, and when the footsteps clipped down the hallway, he threw her off him like a bad rash. There, coming down the hall, as prim as a stick but wide as a ball, was the Mrs.

    ‘What a nice surprise,’ she said, her frozen eyes fixed on her husband. ‘You’re early.’ She stuck out a taut hand for June to touch.

    Ah, June thought.

    • Zo-zo

      Hmmm… reading it through, not sure if I did the ‘show vs tell’ thing here… Comments? Suggestions?

      • Yvette Carol

        Hey Zo-so I thought there were some really nice little jewels in there, like the man-hugging, the deep voice with the bounce in it, and ‘the Mrs.’ Also, the ‘stuck out her hand’ line was tight, it painted a picture without a lot of words. Suggestions? As Joe said elsewhere, take out the ‘remembered’ part because that’s telling, and just perhaps show his eyes flick up and take in the ‘no smoking’ sign….

        • zo-zo

          Thanks Yvette!

  • http://rdmeyerwrites.blogspot.com/ RD Meyer

    Becky sat in the passenger and fidgeted with her hair. The desert air dried her sinuses, but Carl had insisted on keeping the top down. And as if this trip couldn’t grate on the sense any more, the seams in the concrete kept her from enjoying her Creed album.

    She glanced at her first real boyfriend, his hands resting on the wheel. Family was important to him, which was why she agreed to come along, but that didn’t mean she had to share the sentiment. Some people just can’t cut the cord, Becky thought.

    Carl reached over and gave her neck a quick massaging rub. “Don’t worry, hon. I’m sure they’ll love you as much as they do me.”

    She wanted to snort, but smiled instead. Yes, she wanted to get to know Glenda and Martin eventually, but to make a special trip just to see them seemed a bit over the top.

    “How do you think they’ll react to, well, you know?” she asked.

    He took his eyes off the road for a second and looked at her before staring back down the interstate. “We don’t need to go into that yet,” he said. “After all, you were trying to get enough money to finish school. Just go with that for now.”

    “I don’t feel comfortable lying to them,” she said as she turned to watch the passing scrub brush.

    “It’s not lying,” Carl sighed. “You just don’t have to go with all that brutal honesty you always have. Not at first.”

    “You want me to be someone I’m not.”

    “No,” Carl admonished. “I want them to give you a chance so they can love the real you. The way I do.”

    They drove in silence for a long time. Becky began to feel a queasiness in her stomach that had nothing to do with winding their way through the downtown streets once they turned off of I-5. They finally pulled into the parking lot of an In-n-Out Burger, and Becky saw a stern looking woman standing beside a BMW. Surely, she thought, that was his mom. However, it was when his dad got out that her heart skipped a beat.

    “Shauna?” he gaped, his jaw slamming the asphalt.

    She knew not all of her clients lived in Las Vegas, and that most of them used fake names, but this was an unwelcome surprise.

    • Zo-zo

      Great story. Kicker of an ending.

    • Yvette Carol

      Crikey! (as they say down in these parts) I wasn’t ready for that ending. I think my stomach dropped, it was the ‘her heart skipped a beat’ bit that twisted the whole scene somehow in a sickening direction… Phew! Nice job RD!

    • Adsabry60

      That is really good surprising ending I really like it
      Good job

  • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

    Thanks for sharing this Joe. As a writer without formal training, I haven’t quite developed this habit yet. But this is a great way to help remember what I need to do.

    As the plane took off, he couldn’t stop thinking about the moment when he received the phone call.

    He knew the call was inevitable. Noah acknowledged the reality of this truth, but he had still pushed it away as if ignoring it would somehow hold it off.

    His wife was the one who answered the phone, and when she handed the receiver over to him, he knew that moment had come.

    “Dad?”

    “Hi Noah. I have some bad news about your mother. She has cancer. The doctors give her 3 months.”

    His entire childhood played like a silent movie through his head. Every cherished moment with this women had been the most absolute thing he had known in his life. Every missed opportunity to give back to the one who had given him everything. Every time he had hugged her. Every time he had yelled at her in anger.

    It all fell on him at once. A heaviness that pressed his soul down to the floor even though his body remained standing.

    After what seemed like an eternity to him, but was really on a short pause over the phone, he came to with a question from his father.

    “Son, are you there?”

    “Yeah, sorry. We will get there as soon as we can.”

    He paid too much for two tickets on the earliest flight he could find. He filled his suitcase with items he wouldn’t need, forgetting basics like shampoo and shaving cream. Thought they were together, he couldn’t feel more alone.

    They were headed to Los Angeles to see his parents.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Hey Jeremy,

      This is a powerful story. I like the emotional weight it has. You do have a lot of telling here, although I don’t particularly blame you for not getting it. The post wouldn’t have helped you with all of this telling. Let me break it down:

      “He couldn’t stop thinking about the moment when he received the phone call. He knew the call was inevitable. Noah acknowledged the reality of this truth, but he had still pushed it away as if ignoring it would somehow hold it off.” This is inner monologue, which, in my opinion, is like the definition of telling (you can’t really show inner monologue).

      “His entire childhood played like a silent movie through his head. Every cherished moment with this woman had been the most absolute thing he had known in his life. Every missed opportunity to give back to the one who had given him everything. Every time he had hugged her. Every time he had yelled at her in anger.” This is kind of a mix between backstory and inner monologue and a few pieces of action. Instead, you could make it all action by saying, “He remembered when he was sixteen and he broke his leg playing football and she came to the hospital room and hugged him tight and he felt like a child again, safe in her arms….” Of course, there’s still some inner monologue there (any time you say “felt” and “remembered” but it’s still more specific.

      “He filled his suitcase with items he wouldn’t need, forgetting basics like shampoo and shaving cream.” It’s hard to be too specific in 15 minutes, but for next time, what items did he put in? And rather than telling us he forgot basics, just show us he forgot his toothbrush and shampoo and shaving cream. To really show, you have to trust the reader is going to get it.

      Does all that make sense? Questions? Disagreements?

      • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

        You are right and it does help.

        This is a difficult habit to train myself out of.

      • Rob Johnson

        Thank you so much for posting this. I’m in the middle of my second rewrite and I’ve been struggling with this daily. Not only did I join your mailing list but I’m going to bookmark this page so I can come back and reread it when I have trouble.

        Thanks also to Jeremy who was the first brave soul to post his practice paragraph.

    • Rob Johnson

      Good job, I read your story before I started writing my own and then almost named one of the characters Jeremy!

      Anyway, I also struggle with showing versus telling. One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to imagine it in my head and then pull out details from the scene and describe them.

      I’m also reading authors whose prose I admire and and copying paragraphs down which have devices that I like.

      Good luck!

      • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

        who are your favorite authors?

        • Spiderob

          Sorry, I thought it would tell me when someone replied.

          My favourite authors are a little unusual in that they come from a wide varied genres but I really like Brent Weeks, Diana Gabaldon, Yoshikawa Eiji and Orson Scott Card.

          But my absolute favourite is Frank Herbert. Half of his books are lessons in everything from politics to human nature but the man could and make up profound sayings that will make you think he must be copying from Solomon or something.

          If you have time read Dune. I’ll never forget it. And stay away from David Lynch’s abomination of a movie.

  • alba 17

    You are so right that detail makes things longer. I have trouble figuring out how much detail to put in. Anyway, here’s my 15 min. writing.

    They took the long way. Sam didn’t even bother calculating how many days it was going to take because he didn’t want to know. The longer the better; he wasn’t looking forward to what he had to do once they got to L.A.

    Perry pressed him on that point, but apparently he didn’t care that much either. He relented as soon as they pulled the Rabbit out onto the highway and opened the first bag of Cheetos. Sam was prepared for the piles of crap that would accumulate on the road. Perry’s fingers were already covered in greasy orange dust. Sam tried not to think about it smearing on his bare skin, leaving trails of neon on his abdomen.

    L.A. – he hadn’t been back in years. Perry had never been. Sam’s parents had quizzed him on what “his roommate” liked to eat for breakfast, what kind of drinks he liked. He didn’t think he could tell them Perry’s favorite drink was a lime jello shot slurped out of Sam’s bellybutton.

    He’d tried to tell them so many times, but at the last minute he’d always balked. He didn’t really know why. He just couldn’t get the words out of his mouth. He could see the stunned look on his parents’ faces, the drag of disappointment in their eyes. Their only son wasn’t going to give them a new generation of Lowensteins.

    “Is the Grand Canyon on the way?” Perry asked, struggling with the map and chewing cinnamon gum. Sam hated that cinnamon gum. He wasn’t kissing Perry until he got rid of it.

    “If you want it to be,” he replied.

    “Yeah. I want to see it. I want to go to the Four Corners and put my hands and feet in four states at once.”

    Sam snickered. “Sounds good. Figure out the route. Feel feel to take the scenic one.”

    “Sam, it’s going to be fine. Your parents live in L.A., for god’s sake, they’re not exactly Bible Belt fanatics.”

    “You don’t know them. They’re lining up nice Jewish girls for me to meet even as we speak. And it’s Orange County. Not exactly the same as L.A.”

    Perry ruffled his hair, a hand lingering on his bare neck. It felt good. He was suddenly glad they were taking the long route. More time alone with Perry. Perry’s schedule had been crazy the last few months. “I’m planning my charm offensive right now. They won’t know what hit them. They’ll be calling adoption agencies for us before the week is out.” Perry tried to reassure him.

    If anyone could charm his parents, it was Perry, Sam had to give him that.

    Sam dragged his eyes from the road to look at Perry. “I hope so. You certainly charmed me when we first met.”

    • alba 17

      Oh man. Reading this over, I see so much “tell.” I might rewrite it.

    • Mhvest

      There’s a good amount of showing here, and enough of the important details (the slurpee, the gum, the cheetos etc.) with each of them having a reason for being there. I think it’s very clear and fairly subtle.

      • alba 17

        Thanks for the feedback. It’s good to know! I do see some sentences that I think I can cut out.

  • alba 17

    You are so right that detail makes things longer. I have trouble figuring out how much detail to put in. Anyway, here’s my 15 min. writing.

    They took the long way. Sam didn’t even bother calculating how many days it was going to take because he didn’t want to know. The longer the better; he wasn’t looking forward to what he had to do once they got to L.A.

    Perry pressed him on that point, but apparently he didn’t care that much either. He relented as soon as they pulled the Rabbit out onto the highway and opened the first bag of Cheetos. Sam was prepared for the piles of crap that would accumulate on the road. Perry’s fingers were already covered in greasy orange dust. Sam tried not to think about it smearing on his bare skin, leaving trails of neon on his abdomen.

    L.A. – he hadn’t been back in years. Perry had never been. Sam’s parents had quizzed him on what “his roommate” liked to eat for breakfast, what kind of drinks he liked. He didn’t think he could tell them Perry’s favorite drink was a lime jello shot slurped out of Sam’s bellybutton.

    He’d tried to tell them so many times, but at the last minute he’d always balked. He didn’t really know why. He just couldn’t get the words out of his mouth. He could see the stunned look on his parents’ faces, the drag of disappointment in their eyes. Their only son wasn’t going to give them a new generation of Lowensteins.

    “Is the Grand Canyon on the way?” Perry asked, struggling with the map and chewing cinnamon gum. Sam hated that cinnamon gum. He wasn’t kissing Perry until he got rid of it.

    “If you want it to be,” he replied.

    “Yeah. I want to see it. I want to go to the Four Corners and put my hands and feet in four states at once.”

    Sam snickered. “Sounds good. Figure out the route. Feel feel to take the scenic one.”

    “Sam, it’s going to be fine. Your parents live in L.A., for god’s sake, they’re not exactly Bible Belt fanatics.”

    “You don’t know them. They’re lining up nice Jewish girls for me to meet even as we speak. And it’s Orange County. Not exactly the same as L.A.”

    Perry ruffled his hair, a hand lingering on his bare neck. It felt good. He was suddenly glad they were taking the long route. More time alone with Perry. Perry’s schedule had been crazy the last few months. “I’m planning my charm offensive right now. They won’t know what hit them. They’ll be calling adoption agencies for us before the week is out.” Perry tried to reassure him.

    If anyone could charm his parents, it was Perry, Sam had to give him that.

    Sam dragged his eyes from the road to look at Perry. “I hope so. You certainly charmed me when we first met.”

  • Rob Johnson

    “Why are we going to visit them again?” Mary asked for the third time in an hour.

    “You know why.” He said. “And please stop pestering me about it. You know I don’t like it when you harass me about my parents.”

    “Bobby, they aren’t even really your parents, for God’s sake! Why do you have to bow and cater to their every whim?”

    “I would think that you would know by now exactly why.” He said. “And after everything they did for you, despite your situation I would think that you would be a little more grateful.”

    Bobby pulled the car into a gas station and got out slamming the door harder than necessary.

    Maybe I pushed it too far, she thought. But I’m tired of coming all the way out here every time his “mother” has an episode.

    Bobby got back in the car, not looking any happier than when he left.

    “Look Bobby, I’m sorry that I brought it up more than once but I’m the one that suffers when we go there. They may have accepted me as you say but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make their opinions known.”

    “Fair enough.” He said and started the engine. “But don’t forget it’s only been two months since we checked mom out of the institution.”

    “Please stop calling her mom!” She shouted before she could stop herself.
    “Why should I?” He shouted back.

    “Because, you were eighteen when you moved in!” She said. “It’s weird!”

    Bobby looked down deep in thought and then nodded to himself seeming to make a decision. “I don’t care. It’s call them my parents or never know what it’s like to have them. What would you prefer?”

    The bitterness in his voice was obvious and Mary knew that the answer she gave would determine what would happen between them forever.

    “How’s your dad taking it?” She said.

    The crease in his brow vanished and his shoulders relaxed. “Like he usually does, with a carton of wine.”

  • http://www.saltandsparkle.com/home/2012/6/8/sharing-a-new-piece-of-work-is-frightening.html Nics Cahill

    Joe this is a great prompt, thank you for it and how you encourage me. Nervously I am letting go of my little story based on this prompt.

    They went to Los Angelos to meet his parents

    The light faded as the Chevy moved through the desert. Chewing on her nails, she watched Jesse from the corner of her eye. Several times she had opened her mouth to speak but had closed it without making a sound – words where far away.
    ‘I love you’ Jesse said, glancing at her for a moment, before returning his eyes to the road.
    She turned to face him.
    ‘I love you’ he said again.
    Tears fell down her face. He stopped the Chevy, gravel crunched under his feet as he walked round to open her door. Lifting her out of the truck he cradled her in his arms.
    ‘She’s gone, sweetheart,’ he murmured as he rocked her, ‘Mama’s gone’.
    ‘Where Daddy? Where has she gone?’ her little voice whispered against his cheek.
    ‘Heaven baby, Mama is in heaven’ Jack answered.
    ‘I miss her Daddy.’
    ‘So do I.’ he said
    ‘Can Mama see stars in heaven, Daddy?’ she asked looking up to the sky
    ‘I don’t know baby.’ He said, as he looked up into the vast blackness that was twinkling with light
    ‘I think Mama can see the stars Daddy.’
    ‘I hope she can, baby. Mama loved stars and she knew their names.’ Jesse said .
    ‘Will you teach me the names of the stars Daddy?’
    ‘I will.’ Setting her down on the ground, he pointed out the North Star and said that was the one they were following to the ocean.
    ‘Why are we going to the Ocean Daddy?’
    ‘I’m taking you home baby, to where I grew up with Gramps and Granna on Leo Carrillo State Beach.’

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  • Catherine Wrigley

    Jim had never been to the west coast before. The flight was interminable and the coach seats were claustrophobic. He hadn’t been sure wat he could bring through security, so he hadn’t packed any food, and then he balked at the prices in the airport. Now he was left picking at some rubbery chicken in a gelatinous gravy. If it had been in a foil tray with a little cherry pie baked right into the corner at least he could be nostalgic instead of repulsed.

    He twisted the platinum band on his left hand. It was still a foreign body. He would catch a glimpse of in from the corner of his eye, distracting him from everything else.

    The Sierra Nevada hung below his window. There was nothing on the east coast to compare to this unbroken, vast, and jagged depth. They reminded him of the drawings of the deep sea trenches in his childhood atlas. Those pages were terrifying, the unknown lurking in those gashes on the page.

    He felt a warm hand cover his tense knuckles on the armrest, over the ring cutting into his skin.

    “They’re gonna love you, you know.”

    “But we didn’t invite them to the wedding.”

    “We pretty much didn’t invite anyone to the wedding. It would have been too much for them to fly to New York. We’ll have a party or something when we get there.”

    “You know why I’m…”

    “I know. It’s going to be fine, hon. I promise.” Earl took his hand in both of his own and squeezed. Jim could feel the rings scrape lightly against each other and hoped Earl was right.

  • Hal

    Seamus and Jodi sat in silence in the hybrid, listening to the music throbbing mutedly through the small but technically marvelous speakers Seamus had had installed before the trip. He had wanted to make sure the speakers were perfect for their twenty hour drive down Highway 101 to Los Angeles. It was his car – his first new car ever. 

    He had purchased a brand new hybrid in order to make sure he was being as environmentally friendly as possible. He wanted to make sure that his greenhouse emissions would be minimal. He liked the sun and warm weather, but didn’t want to be responsible for burning the planet up. However, the stereo had not been up to his level of quality. But that was an easy enough fix. It seemed that with enough money, everything was easy to fix.

    Jodi stared out of the passenger window, watching the ocean fly by in one postcard moment after another. This was the first time she had ever been down highway 101, and it was nothing less than amazing. She thought back to what she knew about it. Not much, she realized with distaste. It was kind of her ‘thing’ to know a little something about everything. She thought it had  been built during the depression, a government program to keep people working.

    “So, what do you know about this road?” she asked, cocking her head to emphasize the question.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, it’s beautiful, right? But, like, why was it built? Why here, when… you know, all that stuff.”

    “Oh. Hmm, let me think.” Seamus bit his lower lip, his brow furrowed in thought. On the radio, R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (And I feel fine)’ came on. All thought processes stopped and, both Jodi and Seamus smiling broadly, they started to sing the words. “That’s great it starts with an earth-quake, birds and snakes and aeroplanes, Lenny Bruce is not okay…”

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  • Priscilla Parra

    “Daddy, look!” Mia said enthusiastically, making Adrian wake up from his sleep, taking his attention outside the airplane window where he could see the clouds being painted in beautiful colors, as if taken out of a movie, “they look like cotton candy! Can we go to the fair with grandpa and grandma?” she said with wide, attentive eyes. “Of course sweetie, but we have to get off the airplane first,” Adrian giggled while trying to fix his daughters’ hair which seemed like it had not been brushed in days.

    Once they arrived at the Los Angeles airport, he took her hand and did not let her go at all. The last time he had been here was almost eight years ago, and it was as chaotic as always. People seemed to swim along a current; you had no time to look back, unless you wanted to be trapped in between. After Mia was born, Adrian had moved with his wife to San Diego, seeking a new start together. He suddenly began remembering the many adventures he had with the love of his life in what seemed now a different world. He realized her face was beginning to look blurry in his memories, and pain struck his chest. He could not forget her, not now. Not ever.

    “Daddy, how does grandma look? Does she have curly hair like us?” Mia interrupted his thoughts, and it seemed like all she did lately was ask questions. At least this kept him distracted. “Yes, but her hair is lighter and longer than ours.” She looked at him, concerned, and said, “Is she mean?” Adrian giggled, looked at her closely, and replied, “She is the sweetest woman in this word, and she will be very happy to finally hold you in her arms.”

    When they arrived at the hospital, Adrian began to feel a warmth that began in his chest and spread to his head. He wiped his forehead and noticed how cooler it felt inside the building. “Uh, excuse me, ma’am. I’m here to visit my mother, Katherine Franco,” he managed to tell the receptionist. He licked his lips and noticed how dry they were. “Please, sit down and I will call your name in a minute,” she said with a comforting smile.

    They sat, waiting for what seemed like an eternity. His leg was shaking so hard it seemed like it was about to detach from his body. He looked at Mia, playing with the toys that were laying on the floor, as if resting from the long games they had been part of today. Looking at her, he could not help but notice how much she looked like her mother. Her blushed, chubby cheeks and her long, curly eyelashes reminded him of the woman that stole his heart. He shook off that thought; it wasn’t the place or the moment. Mia needed him, and he did not have time to be weak. They needed each other. His mother needed both of them.

    Once the nurse showed them the way to the room, he paused before opening the door, glancing at the flowers he had bought on his way to the hospital and admiring their beauty. He wished he could have bought a card too, but he did not find one that said enough words to describe how he felt at this moment. Mia wrapped her arms around his hips. He put his arm around her, and after a moment, he took her by the hand. “I’m ready,” he said while he opened the door and stepped inside.

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  • peter

    I think you are trying to say something to the effect: drop the authorial authority and replace it with interiority and mush. This s d t rule seems to end in something samey, tedious and, worst, celebratory-of-the-human-condition (American version). No wonder there are so many near-identical novels turning up.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Not really, although I’m not sure what interiority and mush is. Or what authorial authority is, to be honest. Perhaps you could clarify.

  • Emily

    Funny though no one in the Shiro Clan ever got arrested. Then, again, his
    stay in this Yakuza clan was actually quite different from his stay
    in others. The Shiro Clan’s fierce front was just a facade since
    underneath all of that the people recruited actually cared about the
    strangers brought in.

    When Rune was recruited into the Shiro Clan he expected nothing much less
    from the other clans. More drug dealing and hearing sex sounds.
    However, he was wrong. He saw a lot men and women but nothing illegal
    going on. What he saw was karate training, kendo training, and muay
    thai training.

    When he explored deeper into the headquarters with his guards by his side
    which actually made him look like a Yakuza boss, he was shocked to
    see rehabilitation centers and women counseling others and telling
    them about their past.

    In reality, the Shiro Clan was nothing like what the other clans
    described it. The most feared, powerful, and dreaded clan that
    brought billions into the economy (Master Shiro actually gives a
    portion of the money to the community that Mei lives in, mind you)
    was actually an organization aimed at tearing down the Yakuza once
    and for all.

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  • Katherine Hayward

    I have just written my first novel and found your blog yesterday as some of my proofreaders advised me to ” show, not tell”. I have done my best in these paragraphs but I am still not sure if it is ok, and where I need to improve. My book is a fantasy book. Is this rule still applicable for fantasy novels? Here’s my attempt at “show not tell”.

    The flight to LA, where his parents lived, was due to leave JFK at 10:15, and it was now 10:00 am.
    “Run” she said, her red high heels clicking on the tiled floor and he rushed to keep up, dragging his brown suitcase and her red Samsnite one behind him towards the check – in desk, where a bolond- haired lady in an American Airlines unifrm was waiting to checjk their passports, check their bags in and give them their boarding passes.
    “Where are you flying to today sir?” she asked him
    “LA” he replied , smiling at her as she checked their passports and put their suticases on the conveyor belt.She handed him their boarding pases and they were done.
    “Have a great trip” she said.
    “Thanks” they replied, and turned to leave the check – in area .
    After they had checked in, they went through Security and finally reached the departure lounge.
    James wiped his brow and sat doen heavily . Tanya sat down next to him and pulled a People magazine out of the bag she was using as handluggage. She browsed through the pages until their flight was called.
    “American Airlines flight 278 to Los Angeles now boarding” said the disembodied voice over the loudspeaker.
    Tanya closed the magazine and stood up, smoothing her cream linen skirt down . She had made a good choic teaming it with a light peach chiffin blouse she thought.
    “LA here we come!” said James as he walked slightly in front of her, his beige shorts and blue and red short sleeved shirt the most comfortable thing he could find for the flight. He had white Nike trainers on his feet.

    As they settled into their seats on the plane , he signalled to the air hostess, who bought them Cokes.
    “Ah, this is the life” he said , and the ice in his cup rattled as he lifted it to take a drink. Tanya put the seat back and said “I’m just going to have a nap”. She closed her eyes –
    Before long, the plane landed in LAX, and whem it came to a complete stop, the heat hit them . It was so much warmer here than in New York.
    Tania loved the sun, and pulled her sunglasses out of her cream Chanel tote bag and put them on . They were large round Jacki O’s.
    They descended the steps to the tarmac and walked across it with the other passengers toward the Terminal building where they were soon lost in the crowd of excited travellers.
    Fifteen minutes later they emerged into the Arrivals area, where James’ parents, Tim, a grey – haired man and Jill, a lady with dyed blonde hair were waiting.
    “Welcome to LA!” they said , and hugged them both, before James and his dad took the suitcases, and led Tania and Jill out towards the car, a silver Buick waitingin the airport car park with the sun glinting off its windows. Tim, always the gentleman, held the back door of the car open for Tanya and James. They slid into the backseat and Jill and Tim got into the front. As Tim drove the car away from the airport, Tanya glanced out of the window at the palm trees and white and cream houses with red tile roofs and lush front gardens and smiled. She felt so happy to be somewhere sunny and really needed a break from the daily grind of working in New York.
    Just then, Jill looked up at Tanya and met her eyes in the mirror on the back of the car’s built – in sunshield as she finidhed checking her makeup .
    “LA is a great city” she said. “Tim and I love it since we moved here a couple of years ago ‘ we have a feeling you’ll love it.
    I have a feeling we will” thought Tanya, as James reached across from his place on the seat next to her, took her neatly manicured hand in his and kissed it.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Hi Katherine! So glad you found us. Congratulations on your novel. If you need a good guide for editing, check out this post: http://positivewriter.com/how-to-edit-your-book-until-its-finished/

      “Show don’t tell” is certainly more important for literary fiction than genre fiction like fantasy, but if you read really good writers like George RR Martin you’ll see they do very little telling. Still, I think we overuse the saying “show don’t tell.” It’s all about creating drama right? What “telling” usually does is that it removes all the drama, but if you can tell without oversharing, you should be fine. And after all, often showing ruins the story as much or more than telling!

      But I thought your practice here was great. I don’t see any telling at all. Hope that helps!

      • Katherine Hayward

        Thank you! I have no previous experience of writing a novel. Would you mind proof reading for me? I sometimes get the impression that maybe the proofreaders were reading my manuscript whilst thinking of books they like to read themselves and comparing it to them.

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