“Show, don’t tell” is probably the advice writers hear most often from editors and writing mentors. But many writers struggle to understand what it really means.
“Telling” means you give readers your interpretations and conclusions, while “showing” means you provide readers with enough details and behaviors to let them draw their own conclusions.
TELLING: She was a shy woman who didn’t like being around too many people.
SHOWING: She peeked around the corner and gulped at the sight of dozens of people mingling.
Showing pulls readers into the story and keeps them active and involved. Telling makes them passive recipients of a lecture.
How to show
Use the senses. Show readers things they can see, hear, taste, etc. Use concrete nouns and strong verbs that create an image, e.g., “she tiptoed” tells us more than “she walked.” Be specific.
Don’t give readers conclusions, e.g., Rika was a loyal friend. Show them a scene in which Rika is acting in a way that lets readers come to that conclusion on their own.
How to tell when you’re telling
Here are some red flags that might indicate telling:
Using adjectives, especially in combination with linking verbs, e.g., she was, looked, felt, appeared, seemed. This is especially true for abstract adjectives, e.g., beautiful, interesting, etc.
TELLING: Hendrika didn’t seem impressed.
SHOWING: Hendrika tilted her head and peered down her nose, never moving back an inch.
Using adverbs, especially in dialogue tags.
TELLING: “You are such a jerk,” she said angrily.
SHOWING: “You are such a jerk.” She slammed the door.
Using emotion words. Instead of naming emotions, use actions, visceral reactions, and body language to show us how the character is feeling.
TELLING: “It’s not my place to judge,” Hendrika said with her characteristic humbleness.
SHOWING: “It’s not my place to judge.” Hendrika lowered her lashes and peered at black-rimmed fingernails.
Using dialogue tags other than “said” to tell readers how a line of dialogue should be read. Instead, let the dialogue speak for itself.
TELLING: “Get out!” he exclaimed.
SHOWING: “Get the hell out!”
Using “filters.” You’re telling readers what your character sees, hears, feels, etc., instead of letting readers experience it directly.
TELLING: Rika heard Amy suck in a breath.
SHOWING: Amy sucked in a breath.
When to tell
Telling has its place in fiction. If I showed everything, even the stuff that’s not important, my novels would be 500,000 words. So sometimes telling is not a bad thing. Use telling for:
Transitions: Telling allows you to summarize a span of time or distance in which only unimportant stuff happens. For example, it might be better to tell readers “She ate breakfast and then drove to work” instead of showing every spoonful of cereal.
Telling also helps avoid repeating things you already showed, e.g., “She told her boss what the witness had said.” instead of having to repeat the entire conversation with the witness.
For very mundane tasks, telling might be more appropriate, e.g., she shut down her computer instead of: She moved her mouse and clicked on…
I hope these tips help you to show and tell in all the right places.
If you would like to learn more about this powerful writing principle, you might want to check out my book: Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write Vivid Descriptions, Handle Backstory, and Describe Your Characters’ Emotions.
Let’s start with a definition:
A dialogue tag is a speaker verb such as “Tina said.” It tells your readers which character is speaking.
An action beat is something a character does.
“I should be going.” Tina edged toward the door.
While dialogue tags and action beats can have the same function—identifying the speaker—they aren’t punctuated the same.
Correct: “I have no idea,” she said.
Correct: “Stop!” she shouted.
Correct: “Are you out of your mind?” she asked.
Wrong: “I have no idea.” She said.
Correct: She opened the door and called, “Hello? Anyone home?”
Correct: “I wouldn’t have forgotten the appointment,” she said, “if you had reminded me in time.”
Correct: “I have no idea where Thomas is,” she said. “I haven’t seen him all day.”
PUNCTUATING ACTION BEATS
Unlike dialogue tags, action beats are always separated from the dialogue by periods.
Verbs such as smiled, grinned, laughed, etc., are action beats, not dialogue tags, so please don’t use commas to separate them from a line of dialogue.
Correct: “This looks weird.” She squinted down at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?”
Wrong: “This looks weird,” she squinted down at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?”
THE SHORT VERSION
Use commas with dialogue tags and periods with action beats, and your editor will love you forever (or at least not curse your name)!
Before I explain what the problem with participial phrases is, let me start with some definitions so we’re all on the same page.
Participles are verbs that function as adjectives, which means that they modify a noun or a pronoun.
There are two kinds of participles:
A participial phrase is a phrase containing a past or a present participle.
Exhausted after twenty hours of work, he collapsed as soon as he got home.
Floating in the pool, she looked up at the blue sky.
You’ve probably heard of dangling participles, but participles can create other problems in fiction too. Let’s take a look at the major issues.
Participle constructions can result in what’s called a dangling participle. That happens when the noun (or pronoun) the participle phrase should modify isn’t actually in the sentence. As a result, the participle is left dangling and ends up modifying the wrong subject.
Slipping into bed, Maggie was still on Anna’s mind.
The participial phrase modifies Maggie; however, it’s Anna, not Maggie, who’s slipping into bed.
Slipping into bed, Anna still thought of Maggie.
When Anna slipped into bed, Maggie was still on her mind.
Another common source for dangling participles are body parts.
Sucking in a breath, Susan’s eyes snapped open.
It’s Susan—not her eyes—who’s sucking in a breath.
Susan sucked in a breath. Her eyes snapped open.
One important thing you should understand about participle phrases is that they always indicate simultaneity. The action in the participial phrase and the action in the main clause happen at the same time.
If you use a participial phrase for sequential or consecutive actions—actions that happen one after the other—you’re creating a sentence that is physically impossible.
Unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.
She unlocks the door first and then goes to bed, so we can’t use a participle construction in this sentence.
She unlocked the door and went straight to bed.
After she had unlocked the door, she went straight to bed.
Incorrectly used participles are common with dialogue tags.
“Don’t tempt me,” she said, laughing.
Since she can’t talk and laugh at the same time, you should rewrite the sentence.
“Don’t tempt me.” She laughed.
Some editors declare participial phrases the mark of an amateur and advise authors to never, ever use them. I find that a bit extreme. But it’s definitely true that overusing participial phrases is a bad habit for many new writers. Some authors even begin every other sentence with a participle in an attempt to vary sentence construction.
The problem is that too many participles create a monotonous rhythm that readers will notice—at least unconsciously. They’ll be ripped from the story for a moment while they think about the pattern of your sentences.
That’s why most editors advise writers to use participial phrases sparingly. Theresa Stevens of Edittorrent, for example, suggests keeping it around one usage per five to ten pages. That, of course, is just a rule of thumb, but it’s a good reminder to find better ways to vary sentence structure.
When we read, we always pay more attention to the main clause while we consider subordinate clauses to be less important. If you put an interesting action into a participial phrase, you’re essentially burying it and making it appear less important than it actually is.
So, to create more engaging prose, make sure you put important ideas into main clauses, not participial phrases.
Participial phrases can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a sentence. Most often, separate them from the main clause with a comma. Here’s how to correctly punctuate sentences with participial phrases:
Hoping for a treat, the dog fetched the ball.
The dog, hoping for a treat, fetched the ball.
The dog fetched the ball, hoping for a treat.
If you wouldn’t use a comma with this last example, you’d basically say that it’s the ball—not the dog—that is hoping for a treat.
There are two exceptions when you don’t use a comma:
Sarah often saw the dog fetching the ball.
The dog fetching the ball was mine.
So, take a look at the participial phrases in your manuscript. Make sure you…
When I had a full-time job, working as a psychologist, it seemed I could never find enough time to write all the stories I wanted to write. In addition to my job, there were also many other things taking up my time—editing and beta reading other authors’ manuscripts, household chores, family and friends, hobbies… So I had to get my writing done whenever I could: on the train to and from work, late at night, and whenever a client didn’t show up for a session.
Over the years, I published five novels that way, but I longed to have more time to write. So you can imagine how giddy I was when I could finally quit my day job to write full-time. I was convinced that with the entire day reserved for writing, I’d be much more prolific than before and easily publish several novels each year.
Well, reality soon caught up with me. I found out that full-time writers don’t actually write full-time. There are interviews to give, social media platforms to update, manuscripts to proofread, blog posts to write, reader e-mails to answer, and a million other things to do. Plus with the whole day ahead of me, I suddenly became prone to wasting time, procrastinating, and getting distracted by shiny little objects online instead of using every available minute to write.
Within a few weeks, I came to one important realization: Even as a full-time writer, I needed to manage my time; otherwise, I wouldn’t get any writing done. In fact, every writer—full-time or part-time—needs to manage her or his time, but most of them run screaming whenever they hear the word “time management,” mainly because most time management books are too rigid for us creative types.
So once I learned to manage my own time, I set out to help other writers do the same by writing a time management book that is specifically for writers.
Time Management for Writers, the second book in my Writers’ Guide series, will help you to find—or make—more time to write, use your writing time more wisely, and become a more prolific writer.
Thanks for stopping by to read my contribution to the Ylva author blog hop. Check out the last stop on January 25 at http://ylva-publishing.co.uk/blog/
Time Management for Writers
How to write faster, find the time to write your book, and be a more prolific writer
by Sandra Gerth
In the digital age, publishing as book is easier than ever, but finding the time to write a book is becoming harder and harder. With day jobs, family obligations, household chores, and hobbies, many writers struggle to get any writing done.
At the same time, publishers and readers expect writers to publish multiple books every year and to somehow find enough time to market their books through blogging, social media, and networking.
If you are struggling to find enough time to write or don’t get much written once you finally do, this book is for you.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, this book will help you to:
Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to leave a comment or to send me an e-mail.
The two winners are:
Everyone else, please check back regularly for more giveaways–or subscribe to my blog so you won’t miss a giveaway.
Have a great rest of the week, everyone!
I hope it’s been a good one for you so far. To help you make 2016 a more productive year for your writing, I’m giving away a free e-book copy of my two books for writers:
This book is meant for everyone who finally wants to achieve his or her writing dreams, may it be publishing the first book, becoming a full-time writer, or write a certain number of books this year.
This book is meant for everyone who wants to find more time to write or who wants to become a more prolific writer.
All you have to do to be entered into the drawing is to either leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll draw the two winners on Wednesday, January 13, so make sure you check back or—better yet—subscribe to this blog in the right-hand menu so you won’t miss the announcement.
Best of luck!
If a readers tells me she was up all night, reading, because she couldn’t put down my book, it puts a big grin on my face. Because that’s exactly what I want: for readers to become totally immersed in my fictional worlds.
So, how can we achieve that?
One things that helps is to make sure you write in chronological order by putting the cause before the effect.
Let me give you an example to explain what I mean.
Startled, she jumped when the doorbell rang.
While the sentence isn’t grammatically incorrect, it puts the character’s response (she jumped) before the stimulus (the doorbell rang).
Sentences like that can cause your readers to become confused and have to re-read, which rips them right out of your fictional world. If that happens too often, readers might become irritated and stop reading altogether, especially if you’re writing fast-paced action scenes in which a lot is happening.
So, rewrite sentences like the one above.
When the doorbell rang, she jumped.
Notice that this stimulus-before-response order also makes the telling startled unnecessary. The order of the sentence elements makes it clear that the character is startled.
“You’re late,” she said, opening the door.
Since she probably opens the door first and then starts talking, you should rewrite in that order:
She opened the door. “You’re late.”
Make it a habit to write in chronological order. Describe the cause first, then the effect. Have something happen, then let your characters react to it, not the other way around.
It’ll make for a much more pleasant reading experience!
You’ve probably heard of dangling participles, but participles can create other problems in fiction too.
Before I dive more deeply into that, let me explain what a participle is.
Present participles are forms of verbs that are formed by adding -ing.
Hoping for a happy ending, she read the last scene.
Using participle phrases isn’t bad per se, but you should use them only for actions that happen at the same time as the action in the main clause. That’s called a simultaneous action.
Correct: Holding the tray steadily, she walked toward Drew.
Since she can hold the tray and walk toward Drew at the same time, these are simultaneous actions and we can use a participle phrase.
For sequential or consecutive actions — one action happening after the other — please don’t use participle phrases.
Incorrect: Unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.
She unlocks the door first and then goes to bed. For actions that you can’t actually perform at the same time, avoid using a participle phrase.
Incorrectly used participles are common with dialogue tags.
Incorrect: “Don’t tempt me,” she said, laughing.
Since she can’t talk and laugh at the same time, you should rewrite the sentence.
Correct: “Don’t tempt me.” She laughed.
In addition to rewriting the sentence without a participle phrase, there are also two easy fixes for when you want to use a participle for sequential actions:
Most often, it might be better to rewrite the sentence, though. Too many participles create a monotonous rhythm. So take a look at the participle phrases in your manuscript and make sure you use them sparingly and correctly.
Whether you’re self-publishing or submitting your manuscript to a traditional publisher, proofreading your work is important. A carefully proofread book makes you look professional and shows readers and publishers that you care about the quality of your work.
Proofreading your own manuscript is not easy, though. After spending months or even years writing your book, you’re very familiar with the text. You see what you think you have written rather than what’s actually on the page.
Here are 20 proofreading tips that can make the process easier:
So, how do you approach proofreading your manuscript? Do you have any other tips you want to share? Please leave a comment.
It’s November 1, and that means NaNoWriMo—NationalNovel Writing Month—is starting today. If you are participating, here are 10 tips on how to win NaNoWriMo and write 50,000 words in November.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you participated in the past? Please let me know or share your tips for NaNoWriMo in the comments.
Good luck for NaNoWriMo, everyone!
Created by Krystel Contreras & Jorge Courbis