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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Show versus Tell, example thirteen

(Don't forget to comment on my online class idea.)

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 doing 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.

Adelaide found the housekeeper, Mrs. Long, in the kitchen. Adelaide was able to relax around her because Mrs. Long knew she was the mistress’s niece, and she had assured Adelaide she wouldn’t tell a soul.


The boldface is all telling.

There are two types of telling here:

(1) When you write the deep point of view of a character, she wouldn’t think to herself, “I’ll go find the housekeeper, Mrs. Long.” She’d either look for “the housekeeper” or look for “Mrs. Long.” The additional modifiers are purely for the reader’s info, which is telling.

This is an easy fix. Use “the housekeeper” and “Mrs. Long” in the same paragraph, to make it obvious to the reader that the housekeeper is Mrs. Long. Your reader can figure out things better than you think. You don’t need extra modifiers to make sure the reader knows some piece of information.

(2) The second sentence in boldface is telling the reader information about Adelaide and Mrs. Long. It’s also recapping an event that happened earlier.

The essential aspects of the information can be more dynamically shown in dialogue instead:

Adelaide found the housekeeper in the kitchen. “Do you need help, Mrs. Long?”

The woman jumped, and a fountain of peas erupted from the colander. “Mercy, you scared me, Miss Adelaide.”

“Just Adelaide. No one else knows.” She playfully nudged Mrs. Long aside, picked up a pea pod, and began to shuck.

Mrs. Long turned back to grumble at her peas, “’Tain’t right for you to help me.”

“Maids are supposed to help the housekeeper.”

“Maids aren’t supposed to be nieces to the mistress.”


This dialogue is just more fun to read than a paragraph of narrative. It also shows the relationship between the two women with more color and vibrancy.

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