Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SHOW NOT TELL, Part Two by Shirley Jump

Janet here. Shirley Jump, my dear friend and critique partner, is here today to give us SHOW NOT TELL Part Two. Here's a chance to get some great tips and to pick Shirley's brain.


In my last blog post, I talked about Showing, Not Telling, in general terms. I gave some tips, but mainly explained the concepts and talked about the struggles SO many writers have with that concept. I have, my friends have, maybe you have. It seems to be one of those universal problems that stymie even the best of us. Over the past 30-odd books I’ve written, I’ve developed a few hints and tricks that work for me, and I hope they’ll work for you, too!

Here’s a list of quick tips to keep in mind that should help you show, not tell:

1. Use specific details. The best are ones that are really specific. Is the car a Toyota or a Volkswagen? Is it cherry-red or apple-red? Does the man sit in a La-Z-Boy or a Barcalounger? Brand names help the reader identify with things better, too. Also, the more concrete your details are, the more your reader can get a visual picture. One way to do this is to take a simple sentence and increase it with details by adding to it (example from http://www.uoflife.com/wc/creative/concrete.htm):
  • My lawn was covered with leaves.
  • Leaves blew through my yard and piled up against the shrubs and fence.
  • A cold autumn breeze blew leaves through my yard. I stared out the window and watched them pile up against the sparse shrubs and worn out fence.
  • A cold autumn breeze blew leaves through my yard. Summer had ended and I would be the last one to leave the cabin. I sat alone, holding a mug of hot chocolate without drinking, and stared out the back window, watching the red, gold, and brown leaves pile up violently against the sparse shrubs and worn out fence. I had long since given up caring about anything.

2. Use sensory images: Add in all five senses. If you’re describing a beach, don’t just talk about the heat or the color of the sand; add in the smell of Coppertone, the feel of the sand beneath your toes, the sound of the seagulls, etc. The more you can create a world for your reader by adding sensory details, the more she’ll be drawn into your writing.

3. Use good comparisons for your metaphors - not clichés. Metaphors can be a great way to show (Ex: No wonder the dog barked all the time. She had all the courage of a ninety-pound knight about to undertake his first jousting match. From KISSED BY CAT by Shirley Jump, February 2005). But you want to be unique. You don’t want to compare your things to the same tired old things that everyone else has used. When in doubt, use Shirley’s Rule of Six (which is a whole other workshop in and of itself. If you want more on that, I have an online YahooGroup, called Just Write It, and we do workshops there).

4. Vary Your Sentence Structure. Go back to the example with the bedroom and see how a varied sentence structure can keep the reader on her toes, paying attention to the writing. It’s also a great tool to use when you want to show suspense or fear (use shorter sentences) or draw out suspense (use longer sentences). Or emphasize a point with a sentence set out by itself (check the example below for how varied sentence lengths can show the character hurrying, show her reaction, show the action in the scene).

Example: From The Dress, by Shirley Jump, in Christmas Weddings, October 2008
“Damn!” Marietta broke into a run, the dress banging against her back as she wove in and out among the crowds, negotiating her way through the milling passengers and down the long, long concourse toward gate C-31.
She narrowly missed a collision with an elderly man in a Santa hat and green plaid shirt pushing a wheelchair carrying a woman wearing a matching hat. A mother in a snowman decorated skirt pushing a stroller, followed by three little girls, all in coordinated snowflake jumpers. A man taking a picture of the decorations at a fast food restaurant--why, Marietta didn’t pause to think. A janitor cleaning up a spilled coffee, humming a Christmas song as he mopped.
And then, finally, she spied the signs for Gate C-29, Gate C-30--
Reed Hartstone.
It took a second for her brain to process his image, her mind cartwheeling through the flurry of activity around her, trying to fit this anomaly in, as if playing “What doesn’t belong?”--
A father lecturing a son about running too far ahead. A weary pregnant woman collapsing into the nearest seat. An overstuffed carry-on bag exploding, revealing an embarrassment of red and white lingerie in the middle of the aisle--
And still, Reed Hartstone.
Reed? Here? Now?
Her attention on him, not on where she was going, Marietta stumbled, her foot caught on the corner of a suitcase left in the aisle. She felt her weight twist on one ankle, while the rest of her was still trying to move in the opposite direction.
Her leg crumpled, a quick, sharp pain shooting up from one high-heeled boot all the way to her thigh and she winced, gasped, then straightened, still half-sure she was seeing things. “Reed?”
In the space of a breath, her mind processed every inch of him. Six feet two, short dark brown hair, deep blue eyes so dark they were almost black, a lean figure with broad shoulders, the kind a woman could lean on when she needed to, but also the kind that stayed in her line of sight long after the rest of him walked away. Her gut tightened--damn, still she reacted to him, all these years later--and she reminded herself there was a very good reason they were no longer together. “What are you doing here?”
A grin as familiar as the beat of her own heart curved across his face. “I could say the same as you. But let me guess. Still globe-trotting. Making your fortune or--“
And then his gaze caught the garment bag over her shoulder, the bride pictured on the front, the bit of white embroidered satin still sticking out of the open zipper, the part that she hadn’t managed to fit back in, in her rush to get away from the nosy guard and on her way again. She glanced at it, about to explain, when Reed beat her to the punch and added two and two. “--or getting married.”

5. Use specific actions to make your point. Don’t say things like “he had a reputation for driving like a maniac” -- show him driving like a maniac. Let us see him doing those things. Or, you can have other characters talk about him, too. Dialogue can be a great showing tool.

6. Use dialogue as a showing tool (duh! You knew that one was coming). Dialogue is wonderful for bringing out information. Don’t do the recap kind of dialogue “oh, don’t you remember, she’s your real mother because your sister had an affair with your father and then we all passed you off like a sibling” kind of thing. That’s information the other character would already know. However, you can do something like:

“I hate Julia.”
“She did the best she could,” Kenny said. “What choice did you expect her to make at fifteen?”
“A different one than pretending I was her sister, for God’s sake. All this time, I’ve grown up thinking I’m somebody else’s daughter.” Anne slammed the refrigerator door shut. Inside, the mayonnaise shuddered against the salad dressing. “If she was old enough to have a kid, she was old enough to admit the truth.”
Kenny shoved his sandwich away, as if the bologna no longer interested him. “This family is really good at secrets. If there was a Guinness record for the most lies ever told, we’d have it.” He sighed, then met her gaze. “Your father really is your father.”

(Now, look at this example and analyze what the dialogue SHOWS about the characters. How does it SHOW the sexual tension? SHOW the hidden secrets? SHOW the conflict? SHOW the bit of backstory that Allie is hiding?)

From Really Something by Shirley Jump, December 2007:

“Did you give a bad forecast and now everyone hates you? Nicolas Cage already made that movie, you know.”
Duncan glanced toward the house, then back at her. “Something like that.” He paused a moment, then released the spade. Set deep in the dirt, it stayed upright. “I’ve had a hell of a day and I’d like to end it on a nice note. Would you like to go to dinner? You and me. No strings.”
She considered him. Considered playing with fire a second time. “Will you let me plead my case about your property?”
“Only if you let me plead my case about kissing you again.”
One corner of her mouth turned up. Traitorous hormones, staging a mutiny. He was the enemy. To her family, her goals. But every time she tried to remember that—
Well, she forgot.
Was that Coppertone she smelled, too?
Work. Concentrate on work. She’d get the job done, then leave Duncan in the Tempest dust.
“Dinner?” Duncan asked again. He grinned at her, and she lost the battle with sound reasoning.

7. Don’t pad it too much. Don’t overwhelm the reader with description either. You’re not writing a travelogue, you’re writing a story. Add enough details to give them a picture, then move on to the meat of your story. If you have several paragraphs in a row of description, chances are you’ve gone overboard. Try to work the description in with the dialogue and action instead so you can maintain your pacing and reader interest.

8. Don’t be afraid of telling sometimes, too. A mix of both showing and telling is a good idea. You don’t have to show every single thing in your book. Sometimes, a quick telling helps get through a slow part or provides a quick recap. The goal is to make the MAJORITY of your writing vivid and strong (i.e., showing) and keep the telling to a minimum.

Show…don’t tell…and you’ll power-up your story! And for extra credit, you can go back to those above examples and look for touches of all eight tips in those passages ;-).



  1. Thanks for another great post on show not tell!

  2. Shirley and Janet, thanks for this. I love Shirley's very direct way of teaching, using concrete examples.

    And Reed and Marietta?

    Gotta get that one now, and read it. I'm hooked.

    Hey, we've got apple bread pudding here with either cinnamon sauce or whipped cream or both.


    And I brought a coffee pot. Anybody got any coffee?? Mine's empty! Drat! Should have gotten to the store before work, dagnabbit!


    Maybe Ann will bring some Kona blend. Or someone will find something decadent and hazelnut-enriched.



  3. Glad to hear that's virtual apple bread pudding, Ruthy! I'm still working off those last few vacation pounds, LOL.

    Thanks for having me back at Seekerville, everyone!!


  4. Great post on showing not telling! The examples were very helpful! I like how you suggest that it's OK to "tell" a little. I've always struggled with that because I've felt I've needed to "tell" on a rare occasion but have always been told not to.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. AWESOME POST, Shirley!! I just LOVE reading passages from your work -- excellent!! Thanks for coming to Seekerville and sharing the wealth.

    Uh ... if Janet ever bugs out as your crit partner, can you give me a call??? :)


  6. Glad to help, Lynn! And yes, telling is totally cool sometimes -- it's just not something you do ALL the time. You just have to learn to trust your gut. That's what it's there for :-).

    And Julie...I'm not sure Janet would ever let me go, LOL. Plus she's just as much help to me! She's got an eagle eye :-). And she's a great plotter!


  7. Hey Shirley. How's "the Fort"? A while ago (oh wait, specifics. heh.), a year ago I was directed to talk to you about mainstream vs inspirational. I lived locally. Well, I made the jump and changed the pen name. We'll be back in town in less than a year after vicarage is over.

    You have wonderful insights. Thank you for sharing them. :)

  8. Thanks Shirley. I think we could gather all the great posts on writing skills and (brace yourselves!) write a book.

    We've really had some great, solid, useful advice on this blog since we WERE BORN!
    Yes, next month is our Birthday at Seekerville.

  9. Thanks for coming back, Shirley! Another excellent post with lots of things for me to look for while I'm writing a new story.

    Thanks for sharing examples!


  10. Hi Kelly,

    Nice to see you here again! glad to hear you'll be returning to the Fort in a year!


  11. Happy birthday to Seekerville! Love that yummy cupcake on the homepage, too ;-)


  12. Missy,

    thanks! Glad to hear the post will be helpful to your writing!


  13. Hi Shirley!
    I'm still seeing all the places I need to go back and change so I'm showing and not telling. LoL I'm afraid, it'll be that way the rest of my life!

    The examples help so much!

  14. Shirley, I can hear the Seekers snickering at your claim I'm a good plotter. I'm always moaning to them about external plot issues. The truth gals--I just yak until something rings a chord with Shirley and she's off. Her mind works as fast as my mouth so we're a great fit. So hands off, Julie! :-)


  15. LOL, Patty! Trust me, I find the same thing when I'm revising my books!


  16. Janet -- you're a HUGE help to me on every book! :-)


  17. Thanks for coming back, Shirley!

    Love how you snuck in that excerpt for your Dec release. It's on the TBR list now!

    About specifics, sometimes I think new writers try too hard in this area. I can tell when I'm reading a relatively new author because either there's little detail or waaay too much. I don't need or want to know every brand name, nuanced shade of color, etc. that comes to the author's mind.

    I do, however, want to know just enough specifics and only those that help to tell me something important about the setting, character or plot.

    Something for me to keep in mind as I write...

  18. Shirley, Thanks for spending the day with us here in Seekerville and for sharing these valuable tips to help writers Show, Not Tell.

    You're the best!!


  19. Hi Patricia, I'm not Shirley, but you make some great points. If only we could keep all this in mind when we write. Thank goodness for revisions!


  20. Thanks. That was a very timely refresher.

  21. Good point, Patricia. You want to go back to the point I made earlier -- trust your gut. You don't need to tell EVERYTHING, just enough to let your reader paint the beginnings of a picture. Readers are smart. They'll fill in the rest :-)


  22. And thanks for having me back, Janet! I could talk writing all day, LOL. And those who popped over from the month-long writing class I just gave for MWVRWA know I seem to have an endless supply of handouts, LOL.


  23. You're welcome, Christine!


  24. Wow! Terrific post. Exactly what I needed to read as I'm revising the beginning of my manuscript for requested book proposals.

    Shirley, I joined your Just Write It group today. Now I have to find a copy of Christmas Weddings to see what happened to Reed and Marietta. :-)

  25. Shirley, you're a wonderful teacher. You make so many excellent points for both the novice and the experienced writer. Thanks again for reminding me to show and not tell.
    ~Elizabeth G.

  26. Shirley is so good at conveying what this means. (She really shows it! ha)

    I printed this off because I certainly want to study this again. Thanks for having Shirley all you Seekers.

  27. I'm totally wanting to read the new book now.

    Thanks for a very well-written post on Show vs. Tell.

    It'll be a great place to point contest entrants etc. And a great place to come for a review. And to learn to do it better.

    Ruth, the apple bread pudding is delish! More please?


  28. Lisa,

    Thank you! And welcome to Just Write It!

    You don't have to wait long to read Reed and Marietta's story! It'll be in stores in just a few days!! Next Tuesday, in fact, if not sooner (some distributors get the October releases on shelves early) so start looking :-). Since it's a Harlequin, it should be everywhere! :-)


  29. Aw, thanks, Elizabeth! You do such a great job yourself! Those who don't know about Elizabeth's blog should visit www.runningwithquills.com -- our own Janet is over there this week, blogging!

    LOL because sometimes it's a very small Internet!


  30. Crystal,

    So glad this post was helpful! I should invest in Office Depot stock, LOL!


  31. Cheryl,

    When I spoke at Midwest Writers Workshop, it was the same week as the first post on Show, Not Tell, which was really convenient for me because I could point everyone to the first post. They had internet access in the main areas, and I saw a few people hopping over to Seekerville, LOL.