Posted by: nancycurteman | August 15, 2010

4 Do’s and Don’ts of “Show, Don’t Tell”

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When an editor says, “Show, don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? It’s more than a string of adjectives or details. Showing allows the author to tell the story through the action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings of character’s. Perhaps this list of do’s and don’ts will clarify.

When an author “shows” s/he:

• makes description part of the action. Not: The floor was old. But: The worn floor creaked with each footstep on the warped boards.
• uses dialog to show description. Not: Sam was intimidating. But: Sam rammed his face close to John’s. “You’ll do what I tell you. You’ll do it now.”
• uses dialog to show emotion. Not: Mary was angry. But: Mary shouted, “Get away from me. You’re not worth my time.”
• uses action to show emotion. Not: Mary was sad. But: Tears streamed down Mary’s cheeks and her words caught in her throat.

When an author “tells” s/he:

• wanders off into lengthy expositions and digressions.
• explains and explains and explains.
• tells the reader what to think and feel.
• lists the facts and then announces the conclusion.

It takes more effort to create a word picture, but the effort can make the difference between a novel that sells and one that doesn’t.

More writing tips:

How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel
Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel
What is Literary Style?
What is Theme in Literature?
7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth
7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels
Developing Characters is No Mystery
Author’s Voice: How to find it?

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Responses

  1. This is just the ‘medicine’ I need. Thanks.

    Like

    • Loreen, Your comments always encourage me to continue blogging. Thanks.

      Like

  2. Excellent, nancy!!!

    I think this is my favorite writing post from you yet. Perfect comparisons between how NOT to do it and how to do it.

    My favorite word picture:

    Not: Mary was sad. But: Tears streamed down Mary’s cheeks and her words caught in her throat.

    And thanks for including links to your other writing tips. I’m going to include a link to this post on FB for all my writing buddies.

    Like

  3. Hey Nancy, Thanks for your comment and for including links to my blog on your Facebook.

    Like

  4. Whenever I see a new post from your blog, I rush to it. 🙂 Thank you for another pearl of wisdom to consider.

    Like

    • I’m delighted that a fellow writer finds my blogs useful. Thanks for letting me know.

      Like

  5. It is good. I get so tired of hearing that phrase, but it is rare to see it defined so well. Thanks.

    Like

  6. […] When an editor says, “Show, don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? It’s more than a string of adjectives or details. Showing allows the author to tell the story through the action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings of character's. Perhaps this list of do’s and don’ts will clarify. When an author “shows” s/he: • makes description part of the action. Not: The floor was old. But: The worn floor creaked with each footstep on the warped boards. … Read More […]

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  7. […] When an editor says, “Show, don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? It’s more than a string of adjectives or details. Showing allows the author to tell the story through the action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings of character's. Perhaps this list of do’s and don’ts will clarify. When an author “shows” s/he: • makes description part of the action. Not: The floor was old. But: The worn floor creaked with each footstep on the warped boards. … Read More […]

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  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wolfshades, Nancy Curteman. Nancy Curteman said: 4 Do’s and Don’ts of “Show, Don’t Tell”: http://wp.me/pNbRC-dt […]

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  9. Hi! As a new writer, this blog is invaluable! Thank you, some great advice already and I have only read a few lines. Saff. x

    Like

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  15. […] 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel What is Literary Style? What is Theme in Literature? 7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth 7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels Developing Characters is No Mystery Author’s Voice: How to find it? What is Story Structure? […]

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  16. […] 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel What is Literary Style? What is Theme in Literature? 7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth 7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels Developing Characters is No Mystery Author’s Voice: How to find it? What is Story Structure? […]

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  17. […] 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel What is Literary Style? What is Theme in Literature? 7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth 7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels Developing Characters is No Mystery Author’s Voice: How to find it? What is Story Structure? […]

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  20. […] More Writing Tips: What is Story Structure? 6 Ways to Avoid “Information Dumps” in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” […]

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