Insecure Writers’ Support Group: show vs tell madness

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"Let's rock the neurotic writing world!" Alex J Cavanaugh

Today, I’m going to post about something that’s frustrated me about my writing recently. Why? Because Alex J Cavanaugh told me to! 🙂

Alex has set up the ‘Insecure Writers’ Support Group’, and declared the first Wednesday of each month to be Insecure Writers’ Day. I’d love to be able to say I’m not an insecure writer, but that would be completely untrue. I, like most other writers, have insecurities galore.

Originally, I’d planned for this post to be something constructive and useful for other insecure writers, but something happened today that drove me crazy and seemed like the perfect topic to seek advice on. So, here goes…

I’ve been editing my novel-in-progress Tangled for the past few months and, as part of this, I’ve been trying to ensure I ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’. As you would know, all good writing books tell us that it’s much more powerful to show an emotion rather than tell it. So I’ve been hunting out instances in my novel where I’m taking the easy way out and telling emotions. For example, I recently changed this passage:

“I expected the awkward silence to return, so I was pretty surprised when she actually asked me a question.”  

To this:

“I had to stop my eyebrows from leaping off my forehead – she’d actually asked me a question.”

It can be quite difficult to show emotions, but it’s supposed to make your writing much more impactful. That’s why I’ve been spending so much time on it – to make my novel the best it can be. But today, I received a novel in the mail – the first book of a best selling series. I flipped through it, keen to get a taste of why it had been so successful, and I discovered it was riddled with telling. Some examples include:

  • “She was horrified…”
  • “The look on her face embarrassed [character name].”
  • “[Character name] threw her hands up in frustration.”


I’ve been trying so hard to eliminate writing like this from my work, yet I find it in best selling books.  This has allowed doubt to creep in, and I find myself asking whether I’m being too gung-ho in my battle against telling. Am I wasting my time trying to replace almost every instance? Is it possible that I’ve actually made some scenes worse by eradicating telling? AGH! 😦

I need a reality check. What are your thoughts on the merits of showing emotion versus telling? How do you balance this in your own work? Do you think there are instances where plainly stating an emotion (such as, “She was horrified”) is acceptable? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. Don’t forget to support other insecure writers!



Filed under Insecure Writers Support Group

45 responses to “Insecure Writers’ Support Group: show vs tell madness

  1. I don’t think they mean that when they talk about showing and not telling. I’ve never heard that before, in fact.

    Showing and not telling (as I understand it) is about looking at a scene where someone spits out expository dialogue or, worse, there are huge pages full of backstory/background/boring stuff which would be better revealed in an active way. So your character can blah on about their family history and tense relationship with their father, but having an actual scene of interaction with the father that demonstrates the tense relationship is preferable.

    • Mari

      I find Henry James’ version more precise–“render, don’t report”. That is, whether we show (describe a scene which reveals something) or tell (narrate more directly) he would argue that we should aim as writers to activate the reader’s imagination rather than telling them what we are imagining.

      Where the confusion often comes in is that writing is of course narrative, not visual art. If you really want to entirely ‘show’ everything in a novel in the sense of a visual or impressionistic scene Virginia Woolf and her fellow modernist James Joyce came closest to this but a popular novel is very different to something like “Mrs. Dalloway”.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Astruc. From what I understand, show not tell is a broad rule that can be applied in many contexts. It can be applied, like you say, to narrative versus action, but it can also be applied on a smaller scale to individual emotional reactions. I found the chapter ‘Show and Tell’ in Renni Browne and Dave King’s ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’ particularly informative on this topic. They say, ‘…*when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is.’*

      This is great advice, but I’m now wondering whether I’ve taken it too much to heart. Surely some instances of emotional telling are okay. Time will tell, I guess. I’m looking forward to hearing what my beta readers say about these descriptions when they read the manuscript.

      • Ah, I’ve never heard of that. But I think those guys are pretty incredibly wrong if that’s what they recommend. There’s nothing wrong with saying “X was sad” or “X felt happy”.

  2. Cally,

    Here’s a fact: bad writing gets published. Also, depending on the genre, style and expectations vary. Romance novels have a different focus than a literary read.

    A fan base also has influence. You never mentioned the the series, just that it was a best seller – a large fan base may indicate that the author you could write rubbish and still be fairly well received.

    The bottom line in my books (a little punsky here) is this: It sounds as though you are on the right track. Of course it is better to show than tell! Write the best book you can and then, and only then, shop it out.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Deborah. I chose not to name the series because I don’t want the author to think I’m bagging their writing (on the odd chance they stumble across my humble blog). After all, I haven’t actually read the book yet, just flicked through it, so I don’t want to cast any aspersions about its overall quality.

      Unfortunately, I think you’re right. Bad writing does get published. It’s just frustrating for those of us toiling away, trying to following the ‘writing rules’, and then finding books that have sold very well clearly flouting those same rules. Perhaps that’s my real problem – I’m too much of a stickler for rules!

      I agree with your advice though – just because some published books are of lesser quality, that doesn’t mean I should stop trying to make my book the best it can be. At least then I’ll know I’ve done everything I can. 🙂

  3. I agree with Astruc. I think it would be pretty exhausting to read a novel where everything was shown – I’d wonder if the novelist wasn’t just a frustrated screenplay writer!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Annalisa. I think you’re right – a novel that showed absolutely everything would be exhausted. I definitely don’t want my book to become that. I guess balance is the key (isn’t it always?). 🙂

  4. Showing vs telling is difficult. The truth is is that both are required, but, beyond that, it’s all really telling, anyway. And the further truth is that if you have a good story, most people just don’t care.
    Sure, you don’t want to settle with a statement like “she was mad.” But you might want a statement like “fury built up inside her like a freshly shaken soda can.” Both of those are “telling” statements.

    I don’t think you need to treat line edit for show vs tell. I think what you need to look out for is things like “she want to the dance” as opposed to actually taking us to the dance with her.

    Just to say it, I like your first sentence better. Much better. Expecting the awkward silence is something relatable in a way that having your eyebrows pop off your head is not.

    • I thought the first sentence was much better too.

      • Interesting. Thanks for letting me know. Perhaps I am going too far with this…

        • To me the first one sounds natural – it’s smooth and we know what you’re talking about. The second comes across a little forced with weird imagery. It’s also kind of comical and has a different vibe from the first – the second one wants to end the sentence with like ninety exclamation marks – so you’re actually changing the whole emotional response to the scene by replacing that sentence.

          If you did some kind of trade with a reader (as opposed to a writer who is conscious of little laws and rules about how to write) and ask them just to note where they find the writing “feels odd” or loses their interest, it might be a better way to gauge where you need to clean up your writing, rather than using these kinda odd rules.

          Heh. Sorry for spamming your journal but this stuff about style always interests me.

          • Hehehehe, don’t worry about ‘spamming’. I’m enjoying the conversation. And it’s actually really helpful to understand why you like the first one better. I think that’s good advice about getting readers to provide feedback on writing that strikes them as odd. After all, what’s the point in following ‘the rules’ if they actually make your writing less readable for your target audience?

    • GAH!!! You prefer the first sentence, hey? Great, what do I do now?!?! Just kidding, thanks for your feedback, Andrew. To be honest, I’m not over the moon with either sentence. I might need to try for third time lucky.

      I agree with your advice about telling. I do have a lot of examples of telling throughout my book that are like your fury example, and I’m leaving (most of) those alone. Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  5. What a perfect day to celebrate insecure writers! I was just thinking of giving up and becoming a clerk at the local grocery store because I can’t seem to do anything right lately! But with this kind of support, maybe I can keep my fingers to the keyboard 🙂

    Best-selling novelists can probably get away with a little more telling than us mere mortals. I’m guessing in most cases their stories carry you along at such a pace that showing more might slow them down, or that the breathlessness of their plots or awesomeness of their world building make people forgive the occasional “she looked horrified.”

    I think, on the whole, you want to show where you can. But there are moments where telling may be better for the sake of the pace. If you’re caught up in a chase scene, you might not want to wax poetic about how horrified someone is, just say it and keep going.

    But, as an insecure writer, I’m not sure my thoughts are worth much 🙂 Good luck!

  6. I agree with the commenters above. The general theme seems to be that sometimes telling is necessary. you don’t want to show everything in a scene that’s just not that important. I try to use showing where I want to draw the reader’s particular attention to something. But sometimes you just need to move it along!

  7. The “do as I say not as I do” mantra is repeated by literary scholars who have no idea what the business of publishing is all about. Getting published has little to do with showing vs. telling and more to do with who you know. My advice…tell your story in the best way you know how and stop revising the crap out of it. Get it done and try to publish it. There will always be someone that is trying to get you to improve some aspect that an actual reader will not give a crap about.

    • I love your advice, Michael. It’s so refreshing. I don’t think I’ve quite revised the crap out of it yet, but I’m definitely getting there. And you’re right – there does seem to be a long list of issues writers and editors harp on about that readers wouldn’t even notice/care about. As long as it’s a good story, that’s the main thing. Thanks for keeping it real! 🙂

  8. This is a constant struggle, and I find the more conscious of it I am, the more it slows down my writing. And I agree with others than some balance is okay, but in certain genres tell just doesn’t go over as well. Great topic.

    • I agree. The more you think about it, the more you start second guessing yourself and get to the point where you can’t tell what’s good and what’s crap (take my examples above, a number of people have said they prefer the ‘telling’ version over the ‘showing’ version. Out of interest, do you agree?).

      As my genre is contemporary YA, some instances of telling are probably fine. I’m not out to win any awards for literary merit, that’s for sure. Thanks for your thoughts, Tricia. 🙂

  9. Sometimes writers get overly creative and nobody much appreciates except some of the other writers. I don’t think the readers care much as long as they are caught up in a well told story. I’d say don’t try too hard for eloquence and just be natural. A well turned phrase is exquisite if it blends in, but becomes rather pompous if it distracts from the movement of the story.

    Tossing It Out

  10. Oooo, this is a hard one. I still struggle with giving too much ‘telling’ in my character reactions.

    For what it’s worth, I think you can tell a lot more when there’s a lot of dialogue. As a general rule you can get across how a character is feeling by what they say and use carefully placed tells / shows to nuance it.

    Showing is far more important in scene – i.e. when the narrative is driving the story and describing events. When there’s no dialogue, showing body language is crucial. When physical interactions occur, rather than speech. When the reader needs to understand it’s important that that guy just got out of his car and walked to the coffeeshop even if the WHY won’t be revealed for another dozen chapters.

    My favorite overarching advice I read about this was: If it impacts on drawing the story closer to it’s conclusion (i.e. something changed or progress was made) show it. If it doesn’t (i.e. time is just passing or events are unimportant to the final conflict) then tell it in transition. Just move the reader from point a to point b where showing takes back over and things are important again.

    That’s my thoughts.

    • I really like that quote you’ve included, Aimee. A critiquer said something along the same lines to me once. I seem to have developed a disliking for any ‘telling’ and find myself itching to rewrite any instances I come across in my manuscript, even when telling is probably the best way to go on those occasions. Down red pen, down! 🙂

  11. When i was at school a thousand years ago we were not encouraged to be creative with words and so I struggle now half a century later to show not tell – goes agin the taught grain. I think though it depends on the story, the POV, the pace of the story there cannot be one right way of doing thigs or it no longer becomes a creative craft. Read it aloud or better still give it to someone else to read out loud, which sounds best – sometimes to much language distracts

    • Great advice, Alberta. I’ve never considered the idea of listening to someone else read my stuff out loud. I think that would be cool – and slightly bizarre! Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  12. Don’t give up. I suck at this…really…suck. But its important to be proud of your work.
    One example I learned from an editor was instead of saying: she was a nervous, easily frightened person, which would be telling, you would describe what she would do to portray her nervousness. Double checking locks on the door. Walking through her house checking windows and doors. Listening for sounds that didn’t belong. That would be showing.

    • That’s a really good example, Heather. I don’t think you suck at it all. I think you’re lying! 😉

      You’re absolutely right. It is important to proud of your work. And most of the time, I am. I just have these little crises of confidence occasionally. Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

  13. Some telling is all right. It would be tough to take it all out.

  14. Thanks Cally and thanks Alex. Image me giving you each a box of chocolates for starting a worthwhile conversation. People’s views seem to vary in their focus which ranges from topic of the writing, to citing a writing recipe, to reader effect. I prefer to consider ‘show don’t tell’ from a reader effect or functional viewpoint, for which these considerations apply:
    1) Showing takes more words than telling and so it slows down the delivery of the emotions, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on the nature of the emotion e.g. a surprise might best be told; affectionate love might best be shown.
    2) Most emotions may be more easily visualised by showing than by telling e.g. rage is best shown, because there are many varieties, whereas jealousy may not need to be shown in the familiar situation of one character having something another character jealously wants.
    3) Readers probably want to have the story delivered to them at a rate fast enough to be able to recall what happened previously but slow enough to savour the experiences offered. To make that delivery, the writer has at her/his fingertips an “organ” with all the “stops and pedals”. One of the stops changes telling into showing. Some other stops are point of view, setting, character, dialogue and description. There are pedals for voice, pace, plot and special effects and language keys to play the words. The writer can only have some of these features turned on at any time. If she/he is playing a section featuring a change in point of view, then pace and showing/telling may need to be kept the same at first so that the change is apparent. It is not physically possible to be varying all the controls all the time, nor is it desirable. Nor should all the stops be set to maximum effects all the time. The virtuosity of the writer may not be revealed in the ensuing cacophony. Pieces requiring a higher ratio of showing to telling, to convey fine sentiments, need to be identified and the other controls adjusted to amplify those feelings.
    4) I would like to illustrate this theory with examples but it would be more empirically and epistemologically sound if others tried to refute it.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Martin. I’m glad you found the post worthwhile.

      I like the analogy of an organ – very apt. The key is finding which stops to use at which points – that’s the part I’m struggling with at the moment. I’ll get there eventually though, through trial and error no doubt. 🙂

      • Hi Cally,
        I agree and it is unfortunate that there seems to be much less written about the emotional journey of readers than about the emotional journey of music listeners. There is plenty about, say, the overall role of the woodwind section in a particular symphony, but nothing I have seen about the role of showing certain emotions in a novel.
        I have pinned on my wall a classification of Parott’s ’emotions by groups’:
        It gives an idea of how interrelated or isolated is the emotion I want to engender. If it is isolated, it may be told more easily than an emotion closely related to others.
        Perhaps, in a novel, a writer should show novel or unusual emotions and tell banal ones? For example if a character has feelings you want the reader to learn from, then it could be worth showing them dramatically. Love in all its varieties is of perennial interest. You may only want to show sadness if the theme is pathetic, otherwise telling may be enough.
        I suppose ideally one should imagine a composition for the “writing organ” that will move the reader emotionally, as would a musical piece. Profound emotions might be produced by telling a sadness, followed immediately by showing joy. Lloyd & Weber’s musical piece: ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ is an emotional roller coaster. I am struggling to achieve that with my writing. Thanks for your question. Once again, you have got me thinking!

        • You’re very welcome, Martin. Thanks for your well-considered comments. I agree that it’s difficult to show a dramatic shift in emotions realisticilly, despite the fact this happens quite often in real life. Best of luck with achieving that one! 🙂

  15. Nhi Pham

    I would agree with the above comments that there needs to be a balance of both showing and telling. If you find yourself trying too hard to ‘show’ and beating yourself up over it then it probably means the sentence is fine if you just ‘tell’. It should come naturally as you write and within the context of story. Lazy or unimaginative writers just tell and unfortunately many of those have books on the bestsellers shelf. Bestselling for me definitely does not equal good writing, just good marketing and a bit of luck and hype.

  16. Agh, I KNOW what you mean! Published authors break “rules” everywhere! I just read a wonderfully written book that was full of exclamation marks and italics, and then another that made use of exclamations, italics AND quite a lot of uppercase text. And you know what? It worked for me as a reader. And clearly it’s working for all the other people who’ve raved about this book. It seemed to me to fit the voice well.

    As for showing vs telling, I think in some instances it comes easily and in others it seems forced. I don’t believe that you have to SHOW absolutely everything. That would be kind of exhausting, not only to you but to readers!

    PS. I also prefer your first sentence over the second, revised one! 😉

    • It’s hard to know what to do when it comes to the ‘rules’, isn’t it? I guess at the end of the day, you’ve just got to trust your intuition and the feedback you get from readers.

      Seems to be the consensus that the first version of the sentence is better (I’ve actually changed it again since then!). Hopefully that’s not the case with all of my editing and my second draft is less enjoyable than my first! EEK! 😉

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