Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SHOW NOT TELL by Shirley Jump

Hi, Janet here.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Shirley Jump and the first segment of Show Not Tell.

Shirley and I have been critique partners for ten years. She sold her first book, The Virgin’s Proposal, Harlequin Romance in 2001. I sold Courting Miss Adelaide, Love Inspired Historical, in 2006. Both of us had to wait two years to see our debut novels in print. Shirley has twenty-five books under contract. I sold my second book Courting the Doctor’s Daughter in 2007. I’ll never catch up!
Shirley’s latest release, Boardroom Bride and Groom is available in stores now.

SHOW NOT TELL: What the Heck is That Anyway?
By Shirley Jump

"Don't tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." -- Samuel Clemens

We’ve all heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” but may not know what it means or how to do it. It’s one of those elusive things that seem impossible to capture, even harder to get down on paper. However, there are a few tricks of the trade that can help.
First, you need to know the difference between TELLING and SHOWING. Telling is abstract, passive and less involving of the reader. It slows down your pacing, takes away your action and pulls your reader out of your story.
Showing, however, is active and concrete; creating mental images that brings your story -- and your characters -- to life. When you hear about writing that is vivid, evocative and strong, chances are there’s plenty of showing in it. Showing is interactive and encourages the reader to participate in the reading experience by drawing her own conclusions.
There are several signs to look for that will tell you that you are TELLING:

1. Those nasty adverbs: Basically, anything ending in -ly is an adverb. For example:

BEFORE: “You are such a jerk,” he said angrily.

First off, you should never modify “said” with an adverb. Second, keep adverb use to a minimum. They’re not evil little words that have to be avoided at all costs, but they should be kept to a minimum. It’s far better to SHOW he was angry:

AFTER: “You are such a jerk.” Dan slammed the phone book shut and threw it at the couch. The pages ruffled open, the names inside seeming exposed and vulnerable against the stark black leather. Dan got to his feet, moving so fast his chair skidded against the floor and dented the new drywall.

Do you see the details in the second example? Nowhere did I use the word “angrily” or even “angry.” I didn’t have to say he was mad. It’s pretty clear. In fact, I didn’t even have to say he said the words. By showing with his actions right after his dialogue, you know it’s him talking.

2. Not “To Be”: Avoid the forms of this verb -- am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, et al. These not only put you in the passive tense much of the time, but they also tend to remove your reader from the action. Again, they aren’t evil words to be avoided at all costs (see I just used the verb myself) but if you can work your writing to make it stronger without the word “was” or any form of it, you’ll show more than you told.

BEFORE: The room was perfect. She saw it and was immediately transported back to her childhood because it had all the elements she remembered.

AFTER: She threw open the wide oak door and stepped into a past from twenty years ago. The bedroom she remembered, down to the last detail. Pink candy-striped walls with white trim. A thick white shag carpet, two plush maroon velvet chairs flanking a silent fireplace. An enormous canopy bed, draped with a sheer white veil. Linda pressed a hand to her mouth. What were the chances? Another room, just like the one she’d had, years ago, before she’d grown up and grown out of the one space that had brought her happiness.

I don’t have the word “was” in there at all. Granted, I took a little poetic license with the rules of grammar, but you can do that. You’re the writer. You can “see” the room now, though. You can feel it, too, I hope. You can see the details that bring her back to the past, rather than just being told that it does. This gives the reader something concrete to visualize and connect with.

** Writing Exercise: Take this phrase: “It was hot.” Rewrite it without the word was. Better yet, don’t even use the word hot. Think of all the things you can use to describe heat. Make a list, if you want. Write a few sentences that SHOW the weather is hot.

3. Starting with As or -Ing: Again, as with all of the other examples, this is not a do or die rule either. However, in general, you should avoid starting a sentence with an “As” or “-ing” construction. “As she walked” or “Rapping at the door” are okay beginnings, but just okay. They’re again, telling, not showing.

BEFORE: Rapping at the door, Elaine made her presence known to the people inside the house.

AFTER: Elaine formed a tight fist with her right hand and pounded on the unforgiving oak. They’d hear her, or she’d break her hand letting them know she’d come to call.

Do you see the tighter imagery in the second example? The stronger beginning? Removing that -ing construction really helps. The same principle applies with “As” constructions.

4. Don’t just Look and Feel: Looked and felt are great words, but they certainly aren’t powerful and they certainly don’t show much. Go back to example 1. You could interchange “he looked angry” or “he felt angry” in the “he said angrily” part. Rewriting it without those words is much stronger. Telling the reader someone looks a certain way or feels a certain way is cheating the reader out of drawing her own conclusions. SHOW the reader and let her interpret.

** Helpful Hint: Study movies. In movies, they can’t TELL you anything. Everything is visual, thus, shown. How do you KNOW someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is the best way to learn how to SHOW emotion instead of telling it.

5. Using Anything OTHER than Said for a Dialogue Tag:
Said is a perfectly good word for a conversation. Why? It becomes invisible. People see it all the time and readers skim over it. When you insert “he exclaimed” or “he screamed” or “he growled,” you are TELLING the reader how the character is acting instead of showing. Yes, you can use them from time to time (meaning, VERY rarely) but not all the time. It’s a very quick mark of a newbie writer.

Instead, you have two choices: Use “he said” or “she said” or use an action tag. Following is an example that uses both to rewrite a passage:

“You’re a jerk,” Joe grumbled. “You never tell me anything.”
“I do, too,” Jeremy whined.
“Yeah? Then how come I didn’t know there was a party tonight? How come I wasn’t invited?” Joe shouted. He started to cry and dropped into a chair.
“It’s okay,” Jeremy soothed. “It’s okay. You can still give me a gift.”

(Granted, that’s an extreme example, but honest to Pete, I have read passages just like that in contests I have judged). Now see this version, which hopefully does a much better job of showing the character’s emotions. Watch their ACTIONS. What do they SHOW you? What about the dialogue? [That, BTW, my friends, is a whole other handout, but dialogue is also a showing tool]. What does that SHOW you?

Joe flung the empty beer can across the room. It pinged off the armchair and dropped onto the tile floor with a clatter, then rolled under the table with the four others that had also missed the trash can. “Jeremy, you’re a jerk. You never tell me anything.” He reached for another beer, popped the top. Didn’t bother to give one to Jeremy.
“I do, too.” Jeremy plopped onto the couch, flipped on the TV and started sofa surfing.
“Oh, yeah?” Joe ripped the remote out of Jeremy’s hands. “Then how come I didn’t know there was a party tonight for your birthday? How come I wasn’t even invited? What kind of friend does that crap?” He tossed the remote into an empty chair and turned away.
Jeremy didn’t say anything for a long time. Bill O’Reilly ranted in the background. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But look at the bright side.”
Joe spun back, and hated himself for letting hope rise in his chest. For still caring what Jeremy had to say. “What bright side?”
Jeremy grinned, that cocky one-sided smile that begged forgiveness and said he knew he had the upper hand in the relationship, all at the same time. “You can still buy me a gift. And I’ll bring you some leftover cake.”
Then he headed out the door. But not before Joe pitched his half-full beer can at Jeremy’s head. And this time, had damned good aim.

** Writing Exercise: Here’s an exercise for you to do with that -- take a word: scary, weird, ugly, etc. And then tell what it looks like. What does scary look like? Weird? Ugly? Don’t say the baby was ugly (and you know, we’ve all seen one ugly baby in our lifetimes), describe it. Don’t say the man acted weird -- tell us how he acted. SHOW us him in action.

I didn’t use a single excerpt from my current release, BOARDROOM BRIDE AND GROOM. :-) I just made some up. I do, however, have an excerpt from BOARDROOM BRIDE AND GROOM up on my website, if you’d like to read a bit of my current book. And yes, I admit, I do sometimes cave and use the evil was word and the occasional adverb. Don’t tell my sophomore English teacher or she’ll hit me with that Warriner’s Grammar book. ;-)


Janet Dean said...

Shirley, welcome to Seekerville! And thanks for your excellent post on Show Not Tell. I know you have more to say on this topic, but its length requires another visit so I hope you'll come back again.

The first book I wrote, the one hidden under my bed, I used every word I could come up with instead of "said" and patted myself on the back for my creativity. :-) I've learned bucketloads since then, but still can fall into the habit of telling. Thanks for the excellent reminders of the signs of telling.


Sandra Leesmith said...

Shirley, you really nailed the showing versus telling. It is so difficult to explain and you did a great job. Thanks. I really like how you SHOWED with examples rather than merely telling us how to do it.

Congrats on all your publications. Happy writing and thanks again for sharing.

Ann said...

Such specific information -- with homework!(Nerd Girl loves homework ;-))

Enjoyed your post, Shirley.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Awesome examples to SHOW us just what you mean, thanks Shirley!

I found myself running the "hot" exercise through my mind as I dressed this morning.

Sweat slithered down her spine. Not nice. Ack, what a day for her airconditioner to conk.

Lame, but that's my concise attempt.

Tina M. Russo said...

Wow how totally great to have Shirley with us. Lets pick her brain.

By the way I am currently reading Sweetheart Lost and Found and loving it.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I really understood what you were explaining.
The information you provided is very helpful and much appreciated.

I am going to try that exercise.

Thanks Shirley.


Shirley Jump said...

Thanks, everyone, for the warm welcome!! And hey, I still tell a lot, too, especially on my first drafts. Telling is SO much easier, LOL.

Glad the examples were a big help! And LOL that you were already doing the homework, Eileen! :-)


scrappier said...

Can't believe you say you still tell too. You do such a great job of showing. How ironic, was just rereading some of your older writings on showing not telling yesterday.

Hope your lil pup is great!

You, Cathy Shouse and myself got our "new additions" about the same time..'Cept Cathy and I got the "speed racers" of the dog world-(border collies). But my Cali is a great antidote to the M & M's in my office..;)

I wish I could be with all of you at MWW..Cathy and I had such fun @ Spring Fling (RWA) in Chicago.

Have fun, Jan P (chicago)

Valerie Everhart said...

This is what I always have problems with...sayeth my crit partners, lol. Great timing to get to read this since I'm starting revision of my latest novel. Thanks so much for clarifying this topic.

Keli Gwyn said...

Thanks for the great post, Shirley, with examples to show us each of your points in action.

I started a "weasel words" list after Angela Hunt used that title in her Fiction Mentoring Track at the Mt. Hermon Christian Writers conference in March. Thanks to you and your clear explanations, I added "As + ing word" today because you showed me so clearly how other choices make for stronger writing.

Janet Dean said...

I found Shirley's bio. Somehow I "lost" eight of her sold books so up the number to thirty-three.

Eileen, sorry your air conditioner died! Not good timing. Cool off with a chilly glass of Arnold Palmer's favorite--iced tea and lemonade. I'll set up an ice cream sundae bar after lunch. So come on back.

Jan, Shirley is speaking and teaching at Midwest Writers Workshop this week. I'm bummed I can't attend.


Mary Connealy said...

Showing vs telling is such a tricky concept to get a handle on. You've done a great job of putting it into words, Shirley.

Hot, huh?

Here's a little scene of hot right before the hero in Clueless Cowboy collapses from heat exhaustion.

Sweat poured of Emily's forehead as she took a long drink from her battered gallon water jug, taking a break from scooping that last few bushels of corn out of an otherwise empty bin.

She was sweltering, but grateful for the work out of the direct sun.

It had been blistering hot all day, unseasonable for May.

LauraLee Shaw said...

INcredible post! (I almost said absolutely incredible). This information helped me so much.

Janet Dean said...

Tina suggests we pick your brain, Shirley. So here goes.

Is there ever a time to tell?

Any ideas for varying sentence structure while avoiding the ing and as construction?


Shirley Jump said...


So glad you are enjoying SWEETHEART! That was a really fun book to write--especially since it was an author generated continuity (I had to blog over on our author blog today about my wedding today too; that one is at www.harlequin-theweddingplanners.blogspot.com).

Loving the examples, all!

Scrappier, Sophie is doing GREAT! She just got her first haircut. I posted pics on my blog and she looks like a TOTALLY different dog!

Yes, I am speaking at MWW this week (leaving in a few hours in fact, so I'll be offline for just a few hours while I'm on the road). It should be great fun. :-)


Shirley Jump said...


For your questions...

You tell when you have to move the action along quickly and don't need to clutter up the plot with a lot of showing because the details aren't important. For instance, you want to get your characters from point A to Point B but there's no real need to describe this trip because it's not critical to the plot. that's really your barometer. If this section is NOT CRITICAL to the plot, then do a quick tell and get it over with. Use showing for everything that is critical to the plot--character development, conflict, backstory drips that hint at trouble to come ;-), stuff like that. When Joe flies from Las Vegas to Massachusetts to chase the bad guy, you don't need to show him going through security at the airport unless the bad guy is at the airport and this is a crucial plot point. Just get him to the action. KWIM?

As for varying sentence structure, this is something you develop with skill. I can't really tell you how to do it. I was racking my brain this morning, trying to come up with a way to tell you...but it's like telling someone how to vary their shots in a basketball game. It's instinct. And you can only develop good instincts the more you write.

I tend to write out loud. I speak the sentences as I write them because I believe good writing is about good rhythm. I need to HEAR the writing to know it reads right, sounds right, feels right. That the rhythm isn't too much the same over and over, that it varies enough to keep reader interest. It's like playing basketball...you don't keep shooting from the same point on the court or everyone will get bored and say, oh there goes Larry again, shooting from the right. Gee, think he'll get it in? Ho-hum. But if you shoot from the middle, then under the basket, then the left, then the right, then a slam-dunk, hey, everyone's cheering, what's Larry going to do next?

KWIM? It varies and keeps things interesting, but should always have the feel of YOU. Hard to teach. But developed by instinct and practice.

Wish I was more help!


Janet Dean said...

Makes perfect sense to tell unimportant events so we can get the reader to the good stuff. But I've heard it said that if the info is vital, writers should show and tell. Does this make sense to you?

I don't write outloud, but it's a great idea that really works for you. Since I can't rely on instinct yet, I check how I started paragraphs. If too many begin with names or pronouns, I know I have work to do.


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Wonderful, wonderful examples!

I always LOVE examples of show vs tell - it helps me to rethink my own scenes - and I adore the descriptions you've used.

Thank You!

Myra Johnson said...

Great to have you in Seekerville, Shirley! You zeroed in on one of my greatest challenges, getting rid of "As ..." and "-ing ..." sentence starters. I see myself writing them and stare in frustration as I try to figure out a better way of saying it. Thanks for some very helpful examples. (And I'm too lazy to figure out a way to get "as" out of the sentence above. ;>))

Shirley Jump said...

You can certainly show and tell. you can't show every little thing or the book will go on WAY too long. You show the most important things and leave the rest in telling. Again, it comes down to instinct, which is cultivated between reading a LOT and analyzing what works and what doesn't, and writing a LOT.

Thanks for the welcome, Pamela and Myra! Nice to see you, too!


Cheryl Wyatt said...


Welcome to Seekerville! What an awesome tutorial on Show not Tell. I'll be referring lots of contest entrants to this post. And referring to it myself to stay fresh.

Love your books BTW!

Cheryl Wyatt

Elizabeth Guest said...

Hi Shirley,

I read your examples with great interest. It's always good to remind ourselves to "show" and not "tell," whether we're writing our first book or our forty-first. :-)

I also find that "telling" tends to be repetitive, since the range of emotions can be similar in any story, but "showing" is very individual to a scene and a book.

Excited to read your latest releases!
Elizabeth G.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Shirley, couldn't get over here earlier but I see you've been made welcome by a host of wonderful people.

Oh, and a few Seekers, LOL!

You know, between your post and Cheryl's earlier post this week about word trimming, this has been a wonderful lesson in the art of wordsmithing. Seriously. You did a great job of not only explaining but demonstrating what you meant and it's totally wonderful.

Thanks, kid.

And, in honor of the late July mid-day timing, let's do a cherry festival here in Seekerville. I've got some fresh cherry tarts (done with tart cherries, no pun intended, but they make the world's best pies) with homemade vanilla ice cream and I see cherry Danish to the left of the tarts, and a fresh cherry/mixed fruit salad with strawberry dressing that's way less calorie rich than the rest of the offerings.

Thinking of you, Mare!

And I brought an extra large pot of fresh sweet tea to welcome the afternoon.

Enjoy, all.


Patricia W. said...

Cherries sound great, Ruthy!

Wonderful post. Show vs. tell is one of those subjects one can never get enough of. Each time I glean a new tip. Thanks Shirley!

Mary Connealy said...

I do know that sometimes I sort of get stuck in a scene. I know where I want it to go but I'm just spinning my wheels and can't seem to put it together.
Then, I'll just tell the scene. Sometimes polish it off and move on in two or five sentences.

Then later, as part of revisions, I'll come back and flesh out this scene.

I had a scene in Petticoat Ranch that was so hugely important, the culmination of about four threads that I'd been bringing along through the whole book and suddenly it all collides.

I think that scene took three chapters to write. And even then I just could NOT get through it.

So I finally just wrote, Clay threw Sophie over his saddle and road back down the mountain to the ranch house.

It was the only way I could get them off that mountain and into the next scene. But you've gotta go back then, and fix that.

Janet Dean said...

Hi Elizabeth. That showing makes our stories unique is an excellent point. Thanks for stopping and congrats on those 41 books!


Julie Lessman said...

Wow, Shirley, this is another blog I will have to print off and file -- what a wealth of great information!!

I especially related to your statement that you "tend to write out loud. You said you "speak the sentences as you write them because you believe good writing is about good rhythm. You need to HEAR the writing to know it reads right, sounds right, feels right."

OMIGOSH, that is is soooo true!! Rhythm is so vital to me that I will actually add words to get a certain flow and cadence. Like you, I am so in tune with the rhythm of my writing, that when my copy editor on A Passion Most Pure changed things without telling me, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard -- I just KNEW she had changed the copy. I'd fly back to the original ms., and sure enough, the little stinker had rewritten stuff and not told me! What a jolt! But we got it all fixed, so all's well that ends well, I guess.

It's a real pleasure having you in Seekerville today, Shirley! Kind of feel like we already know you, though, because Janet brags on you so much! Now I see why ... :)


Shirley Jump said...

Aw, thanks, Julie! that was so sweet!!

Elizabeth, what great points!!

thanks for the welcome, Cheryl! And Ruth, I'll take some of those fresh cherries! :-)

LOL, Mary. I've done the same thing myself a time or two!

I'll be back later tonight -- off to drive down to the MWW conference!


Shirley Jump said...

Aw, thanks, Julie! that was so sweet!!

Elizabeth, what great points!!

thanks for the welcome, Cheryl! And Ruth, I'll take some of those fresh cherries! :-)

LOL, Mary. I've done the same thing myself a time or two!

I'll be back later tonight -- off to drive down to the MWW conference!


Diann Hunt said...

Shirley, you are a born teacher/writer!!! I always understand stuff when you tell--er, uh, show it!!! :-)

Truly, you are gifted!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Oh, my, we have all kinds of company today and I think we're running low on...



Ah, Sandra, just what we needed! A platter full of Tex-Mex fixin's from our Arizona girl! You go, girlfriend!!!!

Look at that guacamole, and the chipotle spread. And is that hummus? Oh, sweet Mary, Queen of Scots, it's a full array of everything to create your own steak or chicken or shrimp fajitas! Sandra, this must have cost you a fortune, but we're starving so we'll take it and sigh with gratitude.


Anne Barton said...

Shirley, this is a great tutorial. I'm guilty of a few of these telling infractions. :)

The nice thing is, you've given us strategies to fix them. Can't wait to try some on my wip.

OK, I've been good all day, but now I'm heading over for a chicken fajita. And sweet tea. Thanks, Sandra and Ruthy!

Camy Tang said...

Shirley, this was a fabulous post! I'm going to link to it on my Friday post at the Story Sensei. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Shirley, your post was really helpful since I often have a hard time distinguishing between showing and telling. Thanks for visiting Seekerville today.

carolynslaughter@cox.net said...

Shirley, I love the examples you gave--what a huge difference between deadly dull telling and the visuals of showing.

Jessica said...

I'd love to get a book.
BTW, I checked out her site a few months ago and was very impressed with the info she has for writers. A generous lady.
Thanks for the post!

Janet Dean said...

Jessica, as Shirley's cp, I can verify that she is very generous with her time and an excellent teacher. :-) Glad you checked out her Web site.

Don't forget to leave an e-mail address for the drawing.


Shirley Jump said...

Thanks, Diann (so nice to see you here!), Ann, Carolyn and Jessica for the nice comments! And Camy, thank you for the link!

Janet, you're too sweet :-)

Any other questions? I'm down here finally at MWW so I can answer some. I know I'll be answering plenty over the next few days in person, LOL.


Patty Wysong said...

Wow! I'm soooo glad I found this now and not 10 years, or even 10 months, from now!! Thanks for the great lesson--even though it makes me shudder to think over what I've written, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere! ;-)

Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Shirley! Thanks so much for joining us! Janet is always talking about you--good stuff, of course. :)

I so wish I'd read your post before sending off my book on Tuesday! LOL

You know, sometimes we just get lazy and forget these things. I appreciate all your examples!


Melanie Dickerson said...

I really fall into the telling trap when I'm writing, and I'm excited and just want to get on with the action or the next big exciting revelation. Especially near the end.

Y'all are going to stone me for this one, but sometimes I actually like it when I'm reading a book and the author "tells" me what the character is feeling. "She was angry." Sometimes I'm so glad they told me the character's emotion so I'm not wondering and so I can get on with what's happening. I don't want to wonder what the heck is going on inside the character, and sometimes I really don't want to know they balled up their fists, pounded them on their knee, and bit their lip until it bled. I just want to know they're mad, then get on with it!

Sorry. I know y'all think I'm terrible now.

Shirley Jump said...

Patty and Missy--so glad the post was helpful! And Missy, there's always the next book :-)

Melanie, sometimes you can tell just to move the book forward. And if you're reading showing passages that are annoying you, it could be that the author is OVER-doing it. That's also possible. Some people can go too far and feel like they need to hammer that material into the reader's head.

Thanks again for having me here, Janet! I can't wait to come back and do the rest of this handout at the end of September!

Barbara J. Robinson said...


Thanks for sharing the great tips. I enjoyed reading them and understood exactly what you meant. I know your suggestions will help me hone my own skills.


Barbara J. Robinson said...

I love your tips and suggestions for showing versus telling. Thanks for sharing.