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Monday, June 02, 2008

Show versus Tell, example one

From contest entries and critiques that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that often people don’t quite understand what exactly is “showing” and what exactly is “telling.” So, I’m starting this series to give numerous examples so that you can see for yourself the various kinds of “telling” that can occur in your own manuscript, and suggestions for fixing it.

She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. She tended to be a little obsessive-compulsive, putting things in order, cleaning things up as soon as the mess happened. If anything was even a little out of place, she had to straighten it or she couldn’t concentrate. She used her fidgeting now to calm herself.


Pretty much everything after the second sentence is “telling.” Rather than “telling” the reader about her personality, it would be more vivid to “show” it to them through her actions and thoughts. For example:

She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. Why was she doing this? Why couldn’t she stop herself? Her sugar canister had been knocked askew by half an inch. She looked away, but an itching grew in her hand until she finally reached out to realign it with the other two canisters on the counter. She also straightened the potted violet by the sink, the coffeemaker in its corner, and the container of cooking utensils by the stove. She actually felt calmer now.


In the second example, the reader is drawn into her point of view to feel her agitation, to experience her compulsive acts of orderliness, and to see her fidgeting calm herself.

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