Show Don’t Tell!
But Wait! I’m A Storyteller!

Note: I am unexpectedly tied up with some life-stuff in the last couple days (nothing dire; just confoundingly time-consuming). So I hope you don’t mind if I steal a little from myself and revisit an old topic.  But it’s an evergreen one, so let’s discuss anew!

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

By P.J. Parrish

I don’t remember the first time I heard this piece of writer advice: SHOW DON’T TELL. But I can tell you I didn’t have a clue what the heck it meant. I mean, aren’t writers storytellers? Isn’t that what this gig is all about?

Didn’t we beg for this when we were kids. “Daddy, tell me a story.”

Don’t we all still need this as adults?  “Man, I don’t want to think about anything today. What’s on Netflix?

Tell me a story. Make me forget the daily churn. Take me far from the madding crowd. Whisk me away to an exotic land.

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.

That’s part of poem by Robert Penn Warren, who knew a little something about storytelling. I’ve always loved that passage because it crystallizes our job as novelists. Tell me a story, in this century, and moment, of mania. 

I’m wandering off topic. Sorry. Less art and more craft, right? Okay, let’s talk about what’s wrong with telling. First off, we shouldn’t confuse the idea of good storytelling and the bad technique of mere telling. They aren’t the same thing.

When you tell your story, you allow your writer-ego to take center stage instead of your characters. You step in and function as narrator instead of letting your story emerge organically through the action, words, thoughts and feelings of your characters.

You might be saying now, so what? Isn’t the writer supposed to take charge? Isn’t the writer supposed to skillfully guide the reader through the story? Yes, it was the norm for most of literature until the 20th century.  Before then, most writers didn’t try to hide their god-like presence. But omniscience voice has become unfashionable and today’s readers seem to crave a personal bond with characters that can come only through a first person or intimate third point of view.

When I was reading up for this, I happened upon a great quote from one of my favorite old-guy authors Flaubert.  He believed that the ideal author should be “present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  Gustave was ahead of his time, I think.

But once again I digress. The concept of show don’t tell is hard to explain. The only way I’ve ever been able to do it is with before and after examples. But first…

A caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Some things are best handled in plain old utilitarian narration:

1. Boring but necessary physical action

You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.” Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”

2. Boring dialogue

You don’t write:
“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.”

Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

3. Pure description

This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.

Third person POV detached

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

Third person POV intimate
She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

4. Backstory
There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.

But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”

His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING (simple narrative), the reader is emotionally involved with the character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, let’s go to some specific examples. These are all from a workshop Kelly and I taught a couple years back. We spent three hours just on this topic. We still didn’t get to everything. But maybe seeing before and after samples will help you grasp the idea of SHOW DON’T TELL.

Number 1. The setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.

And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.

Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.

He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.

Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him.

Instinctively and unself-consciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.

Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath.

She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.

With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.

Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.

“God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. I think this writer does some good things here, and has a nice eye for detail. But notice first, how dull it looks on the page (see old TKZ posts on paragraphing and white space). And keep an ear tuned for places where the writer could have gotten out of the way — even though this is first person! — and let the character carry the tune:

Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.

Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.

Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

Here’s a quick rewrite.

The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.

Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.

God, how I loved it here.

My own fairy tale world.

My own private Oz.

“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.

My own parade – every day.

Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas.

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think you always save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.” The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?

Another example. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She, too, was dead. From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her. As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police. Anyone here?” I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.

The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall. I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger. However, I understood. I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.

Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials.

In the rewrite, I turned the narrative into dialogue — which is a type of action and thus is showing.

In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid. She was face up on the marbled floor, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.

“Police! Anyone here?”

I turned toward the voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.

“Against the wall, lady.”

“But —”

“Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly turned me around. I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Joe Highland standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.

“She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in the special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.

Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit. She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb. Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.

They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish. At least that’s how she pictured the two of them. She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.

She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios. It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Here’s the rewrite. Again, notice how breaking up big blocks of type make your story feel more urgent, more interesting. Don’t be afraid to paragraph more!

Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.

Jake…

Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.

And her…

Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.

He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.

“You remembered,” she said.

He frowned. “Remembered what?”

“That this is my favorite restaurant.”

He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So, in summary, how do you know when you’ve slipped into telling mode? Look for these pitfalls:

  • Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  • Use of too many “ly” words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.)
  • Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.
  • Too many adjectives and cliches.
  • Omniscient point of view. Don’t include details your character can’t see or experience. ie: a man who is pushed through a window would not be focusing on glittering shards of glass as he plummets six stories to the ground. Or this ratty old technique: “Little did Nancy know, as she loaded the Glock, that tomorrow it would be used to kill her.”
  • Here are the strengths of SHOWING:
    Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  • Strong verbs. (walked vs jogged, ran vs raced, shut the door vs slammed the door.)
  • Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  • One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
    Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)

One last thought. It’s helpful to think of your story as a movie. Those of you who’ve studied script-writing know exactly what I mean, how you can convey the story ONLY through action and dialogue. (Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick doing “Barry Lyndon”). But for the rest of us, let’s just try to remember what Flaubert said.  Be present everywhere in your story and visible nowhere.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

19 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell!
But Wait! I’m A Storyteller!

  1. Be present everywhere in your story and visible nowhere.
    So much more eloquent than my normal The author has no business on the page. caveat.
    As always, your posts leave very little to expand upon. Show, Don’t Tell except when it’s more effective to Tell. But tell by showing whenever possible.

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  2. Kris,

    We writers should review this excellent evergreen advice regularly. We know it but sometimes we get sloppy and lazy. Always good to be reminded.

    Wonderful point about saving the best line for last. It’s all about timing–placing the line where it has the most powerful impact on the reader.

    Old-time comedians like George Burns and Jack Benny timed their punchlines perfectly to elicit the strongest reaction from the audience.

    Even though writers don’t usually want the reader to laugh, the punchline principle still applies to writing. We strive to cause the reader to suck in a breath and say, “Oh!”

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    • I forget who first told me about saving your kicker line for last. Might have been my old friend Jerry Healy. He did a manuscript critique of my first effort (I won it in a conference raffle). He was very kind and generous with his advice.

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  3. Outstanding advice and so detailed. It’s an important reminder for us all. Often times, on the first draft I skip over description and emotion and speed ahead with dialogue, action, and the milestone moments. By writing “bare bones” there’s no room for over-explaining, too much description, etc. Just remember to infuse emotion when you review the writing from the day before or during the first full read.

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    • My sister writes her first drafts like that, sort of racing through, bare-bones style. She then has to go back and add flesh. I am just the opposite. No right or wrong way.

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  4. A very nice article. I’d include transitional condensation of events or information as a handy tell to speed storytelling.

    EXAMPLES:

    The frantic drive across town was a blur of too-slow streets and his former best friend’s pleading voice as he explained why and how he’d betrayed him and begged for forgiveness.

    His informant began the usual song and dance about how he’s done nothing wrong, he was as clean as an angel, then on to how he really deserved some extra cash, and finally he explained how and where the killer could have bought his assault rifle.

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    • I like those examples, esp the first one. Rather than a tortured “showing” of the drive, your “telling graph works great and still conveys tension.

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  5. Ahh, another copy-and-paste-worthy post, now residing in my Killzone File.

    Thanks for this. Love the examples and the quotes.

    I’m coming to believe that show don’t tell is the pinion of fiction that makes or breaks. If I don’t get it right, the entire machine grinds to a halt. 🙂

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  6. Hi Kris,

    A fantastic primer on showing vs. telling, and a great reminder-checklist for all of us, regardless of how many novels we’ve written. This is something I’ve sweated over in the past, and yet, it’s so easy to slip into telling when first drafting.

    This one is going into the save file to review when editing. Thanks!

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    • We all slip into lazy telling. It’s part of the process. That’s the beauty of rewrite time; you put the scene away and look at it with fresh eyes and you can see, usually, where things can be handled with more urgency and “showing” techniques.

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  7. As you said, sometimes telling works best. (“He hung up.”) The other thing writes sometimes forget is, even when showing, don’t show any more than you have to. I’m reading a book now by a writer I acknowledge as a master, where he took about three pages to describe walking up a hill, only to end with, “I’d hoped to find some trace of what happened to Joe Smith, but I didn’t.” Stopped the story cold. I love his descriptions and how he establishes location, but that’s been done plenty in this book. After a while, enough is enough.

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  8. I get a little confused by the framing in one or two of the examples. Maybe it’s because I’m 102% a pulp-fiction guy, but when Kramer’s in a bayou, looking at a corpse, I’d start with the corpse. Partly because it’s the most lurid thing in the picture, but also because that’s where Kramer’s attention is focused. Starting with anything else seems omniscient-y to me. Start with the corpse, since that’s Kramer’s focus. Put Kramer into the frame once he comes back to himself, being careful to show some internal reaction by way of establishing him as the viewpoint character. Once Kramer’s attention (and the reader’s) has lost its laser focus on the corpse, we can expand the frame to include the bayou and backstory.

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    • I don’t disagree with you, Robert. I think that would be a tighter approach. But for the workshop examples, I was only trying to show how that particular writer’s style could be converted into a more “showing” version. I tried to keep true to the writer’s original style. I, too, would probably start with the body.

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