“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…
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.
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!
Writers are often advised to write a first fast draft and get down the bones of the story as quickly as possible without stopping to revise, edit, or look up things, and then take their time revising. Other writers prefer to write slowly and edit as they go, polishing each paragraph before moving on.
So I interviewed ten of my fellow Ylva Publishing writers to find out where they fall on the spectrum of “writing at warp speed” vs. “writing slowly and polishing as they go.”
Read on for a variety of interesting answers.
I tend to edit as I write. If I get into a groove, I’ll write a large section quickly, but I always have to go back over it before I can move on. When I was writing my upcoming novel, Cast Me Gently, I needed to do a lot of ongoing research on Pittsburgh in 1980. I had lived there then, so I remembered a good bit, but still there were things I needed to double-check for accuracy.
My style is, to some extent, a combination of both. I don’t polish each paragraph as I go, but I will try to improve each chapter before proceeding to the next. However, if a story is spilling onto the page in an exuberance of creativity, then I try to get out of my own way and just let it flow. I know that I can trust my beta readers and myself to polish it afterwards. The first draft, no matter how much I edited during the writing process, won’t be the definitive version of the story. That will only come when I’ve reviewed and revised the first draft, because by then I’ve often gone off in an unexpected direction and have to return to earlier chapters to make plot points consistent.
For example, an unexpected plot twist about two thirds of the way through my forthcoming novel, Stone Gardens, meant I had to return to earlier chapters and change some details about a secondary character’s motivations to achieve cohesion and coherency. It’s a rare story where that doesn’t happen for me.
Catherine Lane, author of The Set Piece:
I’m still at the beginning of my career where I am struggling with everything—formatting, grammar, story, POV (the list is endless). For me, I need to edit on the spot to work on these issues and become a better writer. At the moment, I have the most trouble with “telling not showing.” I’ll write a sentence only to realize that I’ve told the action. So I revise. My delete button on the keyboard has a permanent indentation in it after my debut novel, The Set Piece. My hope is that I will learn how to “show” the first time around before I have to replace the key.
Cindy Rizzo, author of the newly released novel Getting Back:
I’m somewhat in the middle. I haven’t attempted the “write fast” method, but I’m also not meticulously editing as I go. I tend to write until I lose focus, which could be after an hour or after 10 minutes. It depends on my mood and the level of inspiration I have at the time. Also, I do stop to look things up, particularly when it comes to descriptions. For example, as I was writing the first draft of my newest book, Getting Back, I needed to describe the exterior of a house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I wanted it to be a nice house that had been subdivided into apartments at some point. So I went to Google Images and looked for houses in Flatbush. I found one that seemed to fit and then used it as a basis for describing the house where Ruth Abramson, one of my main characters, lived with her family. I guess I could have left that section of the manuscript blank and then come back to it later, but I’m way too linear to do that.
My process is a hybrid of these two. When I teach academic writing, I advocate for Anne Lamott’s idea of a shitty first draft—it helps writers avoid the self-censorship that comes from trying to be perfect the first time. That tactic is particularly useful for academic writing, when complex ideas come and go and if you don’t get them down they’ll slip away from you. With fiction, style is, in my opinion, every bit as important as plot. So, while I give myself permission to write quickly and edit later, that “later” is usually immediately after I complete a scene. Put another way, on the microlevel, I write fast drafts of scenes, and on the macrolevel, I can’t get to the end of a novel without having editing the hell out of it first. And even then, once I reach the end, I edit the entire piece again. And after that, I edit it again.
I just finished working with my editor on my latest novel, Stowe Away, and I read through the piece one last time before it heads to the proofreader. Reading it cover to cover, I felt really proud of it, and I know that’s in large part because I took my time with the story, doing multiple rounds and levels of edits, and the writing and plot have had time to mature. Every writer’s process is different—this is the one that works best for me.
I’ve tried both methods. For me, I work best going slowly a chapter or two at a time, then with feedback of my beta reader making revisions before moving on. I try not to get more than three chapters ahead. With this approach, it avoids for the most part any major revision that span multiple chapters or story arcs. That’s not to say there aren’t revision to be done once the first draft is complete. At that point, the story always benefits from a thorough going-over to smooth the reading flow and check the pacing.
Lee Winter, author of The Red Files:
The first thing I was taught when I became a newspaper journalist was to always bash out a first draft and make the words pretty later. If you have deadlines and no luxury of time, then this is a sensible approach—after all, it’s much easier to edit words you already have—no matter how lame—than to write something fresh. And this is a great way to avoid writer’s block, as you have something to play with while waiting for the inspiration to kick in.
Because my attention span is limited to about 15,000 words at any given time, when I wrote The Red Files, I would bash out a first draft on each chapter, then polish it up until I was happy with it and then I’d move on to the next. I hear strange, mythical tales of authors who write whole books in draft form and then go back to the start. I find the mere idea of this so daunting it makes my knees weak. They’re braver souls than me.
Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, I can’t seem to break the habit of editing and revising as I go. I even send each chapter to my team of beta readers and critique partners as soon as I complete it. That saves me from taking the story in a direction that doesn’t make sense and having to rewrite half of the book later. But while working on my upcoming novel, Just Physical, I’ve been trying to keep myself from looking up small details—for example, finding a name for a main character’s ex or finding out what state of the US gets the most thunderstorms. Looking things up online sometimes kills my productivity because I tend to get distracted by shiny objects on the Internet.
G Benson, author of All the Little Moments
I like the word process there—it makes it sound like I have one. I suppose I do an odd mix of the two—I will sit down and tear through 5,000-10,000 words, forgetting reality as I do so, then go back and read through. I wouldn’t say I do a massive edit there, but I definitely do a lot of chopping out and sorting out my ideas. I then sit down and repeat this madness with the next few thousand words the next day or next week or next month until I have something you could almost call a story. Only then do I buckle down and try to edit whatever mess I’ve created. I say mess because usually I’ve added something halfway that then needs referencing to/hints off in the early parts. Amidst all this is the odd muttered swear word, a lot of coffee and forgetting to do things like go to work, because I stupidly started writing an hour before I had to leave.
I’m an editor as well as a writer, so I do all of that stuff as I go: revise, edit, and fact-check. But I am specially trained; do not try this at home!
Joking aside, writing is an intensively creative process and easy to interrupt, with sometimes fatal consequences. I think the advice is generally good, especially for new writers who haven’t yet established their own routines. Get the ideas out first—they’re the fragile part of what you’re doing. When the ideas and scenes are safe, then go back and do the more prosaic work. Jot quick notes while you write (e.g. “chap. 3 driving scene: does a Mini Cooper have five or six gears?”) so you won’t have to remember all of those questions or thoughts afterward.
But if you’re comfortable with interruptions, by all means, do the editing and fact-checking on the fly. I find that editing helps get my brain into the necessary headspace for moving ahead with today’s creativity. When I wrote The Caphenon and Without a Front, the first thing I did most mornings was read over the previous night’s work. It’s amazing how different one’s own words can look after a few hours of rest.
So, where on the spectrum do you fall? Do you prefer to fast-draft or to write more slowly? Please leave a comment
Now that October has begun and November is coming closer and closer, many writers from all over the world are starting to gear up for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, a writing event that challenges you to write 50,000 words of fiction in November.
As someone who participated—and won—several times, I can tell you that when it comes to NaNoWriMo, preparation is the mother of victory.
Here are 10 things you can do this month to prepare for NaNoWriMo.
Are you up for NaNoWriMo this year? Are you doing anything to prepare? Please let us know in the comments, and check back for more NaNoWriMo tips and tricks!
Most authors I know keep track of their word count in some way. If you don’t already, here are some reasons why you might want to start.
If you decide to keep track of your writing progress, there are several ways to do that.
For more information on how to track your progress and achieve your writing goals, check out Goal Setting for Writers: How to set and achieve your writing goals, finally write a book, and become a successful author.
So, fellow writers, do you keep track of your writing progress? If yes, how do you do it? Let us know in the comments.
I’m talking about sentences like these:
Her eyes followed Kathryn around the room.
Her fist knocked on the door.
He dropped his eyes to the floor.
His arms wrapped around her hips.
The wording of these sentences makes it appear as if the body parts take on a life of their own and act independently of the character. It can cause comical images to flash through readers’ minds and will throw them out of the story.
In addition, disembodied body parts distance readers from the characters by taking the spotlight away from them.
Sometimes, these sentence constructions also lead to dangling participles such as:
Gazing through the windshield, her fingers clutched the steering wheel.
Make your characters, not their body parts, the subject of the sentence. If your characters’ eyes are the offenders, you can often replace the word eyes with gaze.
So one way to rewrite the above sentences might be:
Her gaze followed Kathryn around the room.
She knocked on the door.
He lowered his gaze to the floor.
He wrapped his arms around her hips.
Gazing through the windshield, she clutched the steering wheel.
Does that mean it’s always wrong to use autonomous body parts and you need to eliminate them all?
Some editors would certainly say so and will always edit them out, no matter what, but I think they can have their uses every now and then.
Body parts as the subject of a sentence can be used to indicate that it’s an involuntary, unconscious action.
Her lips twitched.
His hands shook.
Her arms flailed.
His hand automatically reached for the cigarette pack.
They can also be used when the point of view character doesn’t know who the body parts belong to:
Strong arms grabbed her from behind.
Every now and then, making body parts the subject of the sentence is also necessary to vary sentence structure, especially in gay and lesbian fiction, where you’d otherwise end up with a string of sentences starting with she or he.
So, my advice would be to avoid autonomous body parts most of the time. Use them only if you want to achieve a certain effect and make sure you’re not making your readers think of zombies—unless, of course, you’re actually writing a novel about undead creatures.
Writers, how do you handle autonomous body parts? Please leave a comment.
Created by Krystel Contreras & Jorge Courbis