June 4, 2011

RePost: Show vs. Tell: What I Learned at Pennwriters

YA author Maria V. Snyder gave a great seminar on Show vs. Tell. I asked if I could post her handout and she said yes! So, here it is:

A common writing mistake is to tell the reader the events of a story or tell the reader how a character is feeling. Journalism is an acceptable method of telling, of presenting the facts, but fiction creates the illusion of being there in the story, seeing events happen without the writer telling you.

For example:

Valek was angry. (Telling)

"Valek took a gray rock off his desk and hurled it toward me. Stunned, I froze as the stone whizzed past and exploded on the wall behind me." (Showing)

[This year at Pennwriters, I also learned to avoid showing AND telling. You wouldn't want to say Valek was angry and then hurl the rock.]

 There are five techniques a fiction writer can use to avoid telling the reader:

 1.Using Point of View (POV)

2.Using dialogue

3.Using all the senses

4.Using picture nouns and action verbs

5.Writing in scenes


POV is the character who is relating the story. The readers see your fictional world through this character's eyes. Usually the POV character is the main protagonist, but not always (The Sherlock Holmes mysteries are told from Dr. Watson's viewpoint).

There are many different POVs:

1. First person - The POV character tells the story as "I." Strong reader identification with POV character. Readers discover story events as character does. Remember - POV character must be present at all main story events. Example:

 "I averted my eyes from the flickering light as they led me down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffed in my face. My bare feet shuffled through puddles of unidentifiable muck."

 --POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder

 2. Second person - The POV character is referred to as "You." Demands reader identification, technically challenging. Example:

"You avert your eyes from the flickering light as you are led down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffs in your face. Your bare feet shuffle through puddles of unidentifiable muck."

 3. Limited third person - A single POV character is referred to as "he" or "she." Allows writer to get out of the POV character's head and tell the story. Provides some distance from POV character while still fostering strong identification.

Example: "Yelena averted her eyes from the flickering light as she was led down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffed in her face. Her bare feet shuffled through puddles of unidentifiable muck."

 4. Multiple third person - Multiple POV characters, each referred to as "he" or "she." Flexibility in covering spatial and temporal events. Less reader confusion when one POV character is used per chapter. Same writing style as limited third, but the writer is not restricted to one character's thoughts and actions.

 5. Omniscient - No single character, jumps from POV to POV, with authorial comment. Freedom to make major points without too much reader identification with primary characters. Example:

"Sam had a very sharp sense of clothes style - quite as sharp as a "mod" of the 1960's; and he spent most of his wages on keeping in fashion. And he showed another mark of this new class in his struggle to command the language.

 By 1870 Sam Weller's famous inability to pronounce v except as w, the centuries-old mark of the common Londoner, was as much despised by the "snobs" as by the bourgeois novelists who continued for some time, and quite inaccurately, to put it into the dialogue of their cockney characters."

--The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles


  Dialogue is fast paced, it's easy and entertaining to read, it advances the plot and shows characterization, and it involves the reader. We all like to eavesdrop on conversations (if you're a writer it's practically a job requirement!). Dialogue is also a great way to "show" what is happening in your story.


Valek poisoned Yelena's drink with Butterfly's Dust. (Telling)

 "While we're waiting, I though maybe you could use a drink." Valek handed me a tall pewter goblet filled with an amber liquid. Raising his own goblet, he made a toast. "To Yelena, our newest food taster. May you last longer that your predecessor."
 My goblet stopped short of my lips. 

"Relax," he said, "it's a standard toast."

I took a long swig. For a moment, I thought my stomach was going to rebel. This was the first time I drank something other than water.

"What does it taste like?" Valek asked.

"Peaches sweetened with honey."

"Good. Take another sip. This time roll the liquid around your tongue."

I complied and was surprised by the faint citrus flavor. "Orange?"

"That's right. Now gargle it."

"Gargle?" I asked. He nodded. Feeling foolish, I gargled the rest of my drink and almost spat it out. "Rotten oranges!"

He laughed. "Correct." He opened my folder and picked up his pen. "You just had your first lesson in food tasting. Your drink was laced with a poison called Butterfly's Dust. The only way to detect Butterfly's Dust in a liquid is to gargle it. That rotten orange flavor you tasted was the poison." (Showing)

--POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder


Don't just use visual imagery for description. In addition to colors, sizes, and shapes, use smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. Smells can be very effective in provoking a response in your reader. Example:

"I selected four squares. They were each about the size of my thumbnail. If I hadn't been told they were a dessert, I probably would have guessed they were pieces of brown candle wax. My fingernail left an impression on the top, and my fingertips felt slightly greasy after handling them.

I bit into the hard cube, expecting it to turn to powder between my teeth. Thinking wax, I anticipated tasting wax. Instead of crumbling, the dessert melted and coated my tongue was a cascade of flavor. Sweet, bitter, nutty and fruity tastes followed each other. Just when I though I could say it was one of them, I would taste them all again."

--POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder


 Use specific, concrete nouns instead of vague ones like happiness, kindness, arrogance, and courage. Instead show characters being happy, kind, arrogant, and courageous. Also use the most vivid, active verbs, and avoid the passive or linking verbs. Limit modifiers. Examples:

  • There was a robot working behind the counter. (Telling)  
  • A glittering, magnificent, and spectacular robot was working behind the vast, shiny, smooth counter. (Modifier overload! and passive voice)
  • An X-14 Postal Robot sorted envelopes behind the customer service desk. (Showing)

Passive Voice: The car was speeding down the road.
Active Voice: The car raced down the road.
Passive: The report was read by Karen.
Active: Karen read the report.

Passive: The crash was witnessed by a pedestrian.
Active: A pedestrian witnessed the crash.


For any story length, scenes are the building blocks of the story. The word "scene" is a theater term. It describes action that occurs in a single place or setting. It can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter. Focus defines a scene not length. Each scene in a novel has a specific focus or reason that the author chooses to show the reader what's going on at that time.

Here are some reasons to use the scene:

  • to give information to further the plot of story
  • to show conflict between characters by using dialogue and action
  • to show a particular character by focusing on how he/she deals with a situation
  • to create suspense.

 The beginning of a scene should hook the reader and make him/her want to keep reading. The ending should create some type of suspense - emotional or physical so the reader will want to continue reading.

 There are seven ways to begin a scene:

  • In media res (beginning in the middle) -- start with action or at a point in the protagonist's life where there is change or conflict
  • Dialogue -- starting with dialogue is another form of in media res, but this method starts in the middle of a conversation. This is an interesting and fast-paced way to open a scene. Dialogue also shows characterization, background information, and plot conflict all without the reader noticing the technique.
  • The Jump Cut -- starting with an action or dialogue that has nothing to do with prior scene. This creates suspense as the reader has to read on to find out what happened after the last scene ended.
  • The "Big Promise" Opening -- start the scene by making a big promise to the reader about what the scene will entail. Example: "When I stepped onto the commuter train that afternoon, I had no idea that it would be my last train ride."
  • Setting -- only begin with setting if it is a crucial part of the story. By starting with setting, the reader knows this aspect of the story is very important.
  • Time -- Begin the scene with the time of day. Waking up in the morning is a popular place to start -- although this can be weak if nothing significant happens. Avoid the waking to the screaming alarm clock and pounding door cliches.
  • Character Description -- opening a scene with a description of a character. Not a dry list of physical features, but rather a sense of the character's personality, focusing on some trait that will influence the plot.
Ms. Snyder left us with some writing exercises that should help with show vs. tell. I thought it might be fun to leave our answers in the comments section.

Using all the senses, describe one of the following three scenarios:
A. Waiting in line for the Drop of Death rollercoaster
B. Riding on the Drop of Death rollercoaster
C. Getting off the Drop of Death rollercoaster after having ridden it.

Correct these three sentences to show rather than tell (can expand into a paragraph):
A. The hotel was crowded.

B. Doug was handsome.

C. He wore a suit and thought he looked good.

D. Mary hated working for Frannie.

E. The little boy was afraid of the dark.

F. Kari was angry at Tom.

A special thanks to Maria V. Snyder for giving a great seminar, a thorough handout, and for letting us share it!
She has a lot of great sources for writers in her Publishing Labyrinth, but I think this post is long enough! :)


Sari Webb said...

I'm so excited that you reposted this today, Emily. I read Poison Study yesterday and finished it in one sitting! So amazing. First thing I did this morning was get online and order the next two books in the series!

Unknown said...

The series is high on my to-read list. I've heard it's amazing!

Unknown said...

Excellent guides and tips. Kudos for the re-post.

.i2Style{ font:bold 24px Tahoma, Geneva, sans-serif; font-style:normal; color:#ffffff; background:#67b310; border:0px none #ffffff; text-shadow:0px -1px 1px #222222; box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; -moz-box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; -webkit-box-shadow:2px 2px 5px #000000; border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; -moz-border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; -webkit-border-radius:90px 10px 90px 10px; width:96px; padding:20px 43px; cursor:pointer; margin:0 auto; } .i2Style:active{ cursor:pointer; position:relative; top:2px; }