Show v. Tell – Be Specific

Posted: November 23, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Show v. Tell – Be Specific

 Fiction writers continually strive to make their words more powerful by studying creative writing books and articles, enrolling in college or on-line courses, reading articles on the Internet, seeking suggestions from other authors, or reading other published authors.

In my more than 20 years of writing, much of which has been allocated to seeking such advice, one piece of advice I’ve seen many times is to Show v. Tell. In my opinion, this should be at or near the top of every fiction writer’s revision checklist.

For example, rather than tell the reader, “Larry was angry,” show his anger in this manner, “Larry’s face turned bright red as he bared his teeth and slammed the door.”

One way to show v. tell is to be specific. This technique not only “admits” the reader entry into the story setting but is a simple and non-evasive method to make the characters come alive.

Creative writing suggestions are best illustrated by examples and are themselves a “show v. tell” approach. Below are a few examples.

Tell: After Frank finished his chores, he got into his car and went shopping.

Show: After Frank mowed and edged the yard, he jumped into his 2010 blue Ford 150 and drove to the local mall to shop for new clothes at Macy’s.

In the “tell” example, the reader doesn’t know what chores Frank finished, what make and model of car he drives, or where he shops.

In the “show” example, the reader can (hopefully) picture the trimmed yard, his truck, which characterizes Frank as to what vehicle he likes to drive, can picture a mall setting and a Macy’s department store, which reveals Frank’s spending habits and taste in clothing, even the fact he might prefer shopping at a mall v. a strip center.

Tell: After the death of his parents, William left home and went off to college.

Show: One month following the tragic death of his parents in a violent car accident, William left Tulsa to attend the University of Southern California.

In the “tell” example, the reader doesn’t know how William’s parents died, where he left from and where he went, or which college he attended.

In the “show” example, the reader knows how William’s parents died, where he lived and what college he planned to attend.

Tell: John prepared a bowl of cereal and sat down at the kitchen table, reading the paper as he ate.

Show: John prepared a healthy-sized bowl of Raisin Bran and sat down at the kitchen table, reading the sports section of the Chicago Tribune as he ate. It was the cereal of choice growing up in Chicago. He still remembered his late mother’s words, “Johnny, eat a bowl of Raisin Bran every day. It will keep you regular.”

In the “tell” example, the reader doesn’t know what John is eating or why, or what he is reading.

In the “show” example, the reader can see the box of Raisin Bran, knows John is interested in sports, lives in Chicago (or has ties to Chicago), and lets the writer expound on John’s background and the fact he listened to his mother.

Specificity can be applied to anything and everything the writer wants – think people (characters), places and location (setting), and things (objects). Most fiction writers have some form of a character profile or can find tons of examples on the Internet. My character profile in in Excel format and contains over 100 columns of information, from grade school to career, friendships, what they like to eat, how they talk, how they walk . . . you get the picture.

The next time you fill out your character profile, be at least aware of the specificity you can apply and include in the setting and locations of your story. It is guaranteed to improve the quality of your writing.

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  1. cdaveler says:

    I once had someone describe showing as describing events in real time. I think I agree with that, or find it more useful than just being specific. Showing is about creating feeling where as telling is just informative. Whether he “did his chores” or “mowed the lawn” it still doesn’t make me feel the heat of the sun, the smell of the grass clippings, the blisters on his hands. I just know he mowed the lawn.

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