Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Telling Example

Camy here, talking a little about Showing and Telling today.

I was thinking about it the other day on my run (I don’t really know why I think about writing craft when I’m running … hmm, is there some deep meaning behind that? LOL). I had a line from my story that was pure telling, and I was thinking how I could change that to showing.

Now don’t get me wrong, Telling Is Not Bad. Yes, say that again: Telling Is Not Bad.

There are lots of reasons why you should Tell instead of Show in a manuscript. I wrote a few examples here. And another really good reason to Tell is if your editor tells you to insert some telling in order to make the story make more sense to the reader.

But you also should have as little Telling in the manuscript in the first chapter or three because it really makes your writing look much more professional. If an editor tells you later to add telling, that’s so much better than being rejected because you have too much telling in the first chapter.

So I try to avoid telling as much as possible. Even if I’m tight with my word count (sidebar: I had to cut 15,000 words from my last manuscript before turning it in! Yikes!) I will still cut other words or tighten my prose rather than transforming my lovely Showing into Telling. Because darn it! I spent a lot of time writing that Showing and I’m not going to trash my hard work! :(

Anyway, I thought this example might be useful/helpful/mildly entertaining for you guys today.

My heroine Monica is at a posh business banquet and she’s just met Mr. O’Neill again, an old acquaintance who grew up with her father.

Monica turned, but the light from the chandeliers above glinted on glass right under her chin a microsecond before she felt the touch of a champagne flute at her throat. “Oh!” She recoiled, hoping it didn’t spill.

“Miss Grant! I’m so sorry.”

The low voice made her smile and look up rather than look down for champagne on her dress bodice. “Mr. O’Neill, how nice to see you. I didn’t realize you were back in Sonoma.” Patrick O’Neill was a modern-day hotel baron—he bought struggling hotels and turned them in raging successes before selling them to hotel chains and moving on to his next project. He’d been working on his latest hotel, the Fontana, for the last five years and it was rumored he was raring to sell it and buy another one.

Camy here: Boldface is Telling. I’m pretty sure most of you realized that, right? It’s as if you were watching a play, and the actor suddenly stopped acting, turned to the audience, and “told” you what’s going on as opposed to showing the information through dialogue and action on the stage.

So I thought, How can I change that into Showing?

The low voice made her smile and look up rather than look down for champagne on her dress bodice. “Mr. O’Neill, how nice to see you. I didn’t realize you were back in Northern California.”

His light blue eyes creased deeply at the corners. “I’ve only been back for a few days, spending time with my new grandson.”

“I heard rumors you’re about to sell the Fontana Hotel to buy a new project.”

A smile hovered around the edges of his mouth. “Would those be the same rumors that your father’s going to expand his spa and add a hotel?”

“And why would you be interested in Dad’s project? After all, it’s not a struggling hotel you can sweep in and buy up, transform into a raging success, and then resell to the Hyatt.”

Camy here: Better, right? But even that last paragraph of dialogue is kind of like Telling, don’t you think? It’s like a character saying to her husband, “Charles, Mrs. Smith, the woman who stole your father away from your mother and ran away with him to the Bahamas, has called asking to speak to you after fifteen years of silence.”

Uh … a little obvious, no?

Let’s try this again:

The low voice made her smile and look up rather than look down for champagne on her dress bodice. “Mr. O’Neill, how nice to see you. I didn’t realize you were back in Northern California.”

His light blue eyes creased deeply at the corners. “I’ve only been back for a few days, spending time with my new grandson.”

“I heard rumors you’re about to sell the Fontana Hotel to buy a new project.”

A smile hovered around the edges of his mouth. “Would those be the same rumors that your father’s going to expand his spa and add a hotel?”

“You stay far away from Dad’s project.” But there was a teasing note to her voice. “I thought you were only interested in struggling hotels.”

He winked. “So I’ll come back in five years. O’Neill to the rescue.”

Monica laughed. “No way would Dad let you buy his hotel and make it a raging success where he couldn’t do it himself. It’s a matter of pride.”

“I’ll sell it back to him,” he offered generously.

“You wouldn’t sell it to Hyatt? I heard that’s who’s interested in the Fontana.”

His mouth worked, but he didn’t answer her.

“Hmm, not the Hyatt. Hilton, maybe? I heard another rumor that they edged out the other buyers for your Monterey hotel by offering double your asking price.”

Camy here: It’s a little long, I’ll have to think about if I want to keep it or make this information come out in some other scene or section of dialogue. But I’ve included all the important information, and even used the dialogue to imply the hotels are raging successes rather than saying it outright.

Your turn! In the comments, copy a line of Telling from your manuscript, then rewrite it!

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. You can now preorder her September romantic suspense, Formula for Danger! She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she ponders frivolous things like knitting, running, dogs, and Asiana. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for giveaways!


  1. Who's up first? I've set out a pot of coffee for you early morning East Coast people, but I'm heading to bed here in California and I'll be back in a few hours. :)

  2. Grabbing coffee!

    And I've added a few flavored brews to the coffee selection courtesy of the Keurig and K-cups.

    Step right up, brew your own, and treat yourself to an array of creamers.

    Camster, great examples. I love the breakdown, good job oh gifted one!

    And that cover rocks. Totally. Can't wait to get my hands on it.

    Any of yesterday's cake left? NO???

    Oh my stars, you bunch of gluttons. Just because I WORKED LATE doesn't mean I didn't want a smidge of triple chocolate decadence cake.

    Okay, leaving glazed Snickerdoodles and lemon bars. Enjoy!

  3. This is great. I totally get the difference now. Do you ever have the same issue at the end when you are trying to wrap things up? Seems like I see a lot more telling in the last chapter and epilogues. So, is there a different criteria there?

    Thanks for the virtual coffee...its the only kind I get to drink these days.

    And GREAT cover...looking forward to the book!

    Peace, Julie

  4. Camy, I always enjoy your posts so much! Your examples from your WIP are great.

    I think I'm not going to get anywhere with my writing...all because I don't think there is anything wrong with some "telling" versus "showing". Sometimes I'd like for the characters in a play, movie, or book to stop moving and speaking long enough to clue me in on some things!

  5. Hi Camy, How fun. I struggled so long with the show don't tell issue that I really appreciate when someone "shows" what they are talking about. Great job.

    Hmmm, I'm interested in the guy myself. good job. LOL

    Brought some burritos to go with the snickerbars.

  6. Camy, this is a great post, and a lesson I can really use. Your examples are very helpful. Thanks!

    Here goes:

    Cooper Maitland climbed out of his Cessna and scanned the tarmac for his little cousin, Ryan. He found her leaning against her truck. It was good to be home. A year was too long to be away. No place he’d traveled compared to Alaska. He’d stayed away for a year hoping to dull the pain, but it was only compounded with the absence of family.

    Cooper Maitland climbed from his Cessna. He scanned the tarmac and found her leaning against her truck. With few long strides he reached for her swooping her up in a bear hug. “Hey, Ryan.”

    She threw her head back laughing. “Hey, Cuz, it’s good to have you back. A year is too long.”

    He gave her one last squeeze and set her down. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” His eyes traveled to majestic snow covered peaks touching crystal blue skies. He breathed deep. “There’s no place like Alaska.”

    She swatted his arm. “You should know, Mr. World Traveler.”

    Their eyes met. Deep blue orbs mirrored his pain. “I thought my heart would heal better away from all the constant reminders. I was wrong. Being away from you all just made it worse.”

  7. Thanks for this great post, Camy! You have a gift for teaching!

    I have struggled with this a lot. I'm more of an intuitive writer than a rules follower, so this is something I don't think about that much, but it's something I had to learn about early on. I learned from entering contests and having judges say Show Don't Tell. Like you say, telling is not so good in the first three chapters. Now I will sometimes recognize that I have a little too much telling and go back in and change it to showing. Telling moves the story at a faster pace, which is why I like to use it. But telling in the wrong places sounds amateurish and even jarring. I think I learned this mostly from trial and error (writing writing writing), and those valuable contest judges!

  8. Excellent examples of turning telling into showing, Camy!! Love that you said telling isn't bad. Though most writers don't need to be encourged to tell when telling is far easier than showing.

    The reason an agent rejected me after I thought my writing was ready for publication was telling. It took a while to get the difference in my head, but once I got it, my writing took a leap.

    I brought round waffles with syrup, blueberries and whipped cream. I made mine into a smiley face. :-)


  9. I'm munching on one of Sandra's breakfast burritos. Yum!

    Great job of showing Showing, Camy.

    I had a number of contest judges ding me on Telling when I first began entering, so I read posts on the subject until I "got" it. I must be doing a better job these days because one of my CPs pointed out places in my wip where she thought I'd done a good job Showing an emotional reaction but suggested I add a bit of Telling to round things out. I'm doing so, but it's hard. Like you, I don't want to mess with the Showing I've worked hard to incorporate.

  10. Thanks for the excellent examples, Camy! This is one area that I have to keep pounding in my head and practicing. Maybe some day I'll finally get it. :-) Here's a short example I just edited on my wip. Not sure it's completely there, but getting closer.

    Original: The Friedmans' house came into view and he pulled into the driveway.

    Revised: He turned onto the Friedmans' street and passed by ranch houses until he reached the one with no lights shining in the windows. The dark outlines of oak trees lined the driveway, welcoming him as he pulled in.

  11. Great lesson, Camy. I'm thinking I'm beginning to grasp the difference between Showing and Telling. Love your example -- and Kirsten's too. And I'm noticing that the showing brings more movement to the scene -- if that makes any sense. It's not passive so the reader is engaged more.

    I'd be interested in hearing what you think about Julie's comments -- re: there seems to be more telling in the last chapter of a book. I think that happens a lot in suspense with the wrap up.

  12. WOW, Camy, this was excellent!! I don't think I've ever had such a clear and complete lesson on showing versus telling before -- THANK YOU!!

    I will admit, I'm one of those authors who lapses into telling a little too much, even if it is in subtle ways (i.e. fear tightened her stomach), so I wonder if you would quality this personification (when n inanimate object like "fear" in the above example is personified, by attributing human traits and qualities to it) as showing? I always figure that as long as there is an action with it (i.e. fear clawed at her throat), it is a a one-two punch in getting one's point across clearly and easily seen in the reader's mind, but I'm not sure. What is your take on this?


  13. Good morning! Camy, this is excellent. I still struggle with Showing vs. Telling as well. But your example makes it so much clearer. As in everything crafted related though, I see it when pointed out, but applying the ideas to my own work is SO much harder!

    And Kirsten, fabulous example. I want to read this story already, just from that short piece! Good job.

    Will be watching for Camy's answers to these excellent questions!


  14. I click on the examples of where you said telling is okay. I use it to zip over a bit of time too. If someone is traveling from one place to the next, we don't really want to hear about every exit or stoplight.

    Julie raised an excellent point about writing emotion. I highly recommend Susan May Warren's ACFW class on writing emotion from the 2008 conference. It's the best I've ever heard on not naming the emotion as we write. That takes some real "showing"!

    You can also find it in her writing craft book: Deep and Wide under the section "The Four Layers of Writing Emotions". Her story about Darla is hilarious. Highly Recommended!

  15. Kav and Susan, Thanks for the support!

  16. Awesome lesson, Camy. I love how you also made the showing reveal a strained, but still cordial relationship.

  17. Thanks for the coffee, Camy, and I'll take Janet's round waffles, though it's noon here :-)

    Thanks, too, for the concise how-to of your advice. I used to be the Queen of Tell, but I'm doing better!


  18. If writers only showed and not told, books would be War and Peace length. That's not to say I don't agree with Camy that some things need to be "shown" not "told." Such as her example.

    How do you figure out the balance?

    Pick up the 2010 RITA finalists in your chosen genre. Now study them. Look to see how much "telling" they do. Oh, I know folks will say "multi-published, best-selling authors can get away with it."

    After doing a bit of studying myself, I realized they do it because they know WHEN to do it and when NOT to. Not to mention it depends also on the publisher and novel length.

    A contest entry I judged last night fits perfectly into this topic.

    Heroine meets hero and then he whisks her out onto the dancefloor.

    Lost in erotic fantasies of this incredibly sexy stranger, Heroine wasn’t aware the band was playing a waltz until he put his strong arm around her waist, guiding her into the dance. As he dexterously twirled and dipped her around the crowded room, she felt as if she were floating across the polished wood floor.

    “That was wonderful, thank you.” Heroine said when the dance came to an end.

    That snippet got me thinking about Julie's "a kiss is never just a kiss" comment.

    A dance isn’t just a dance. It’s a moment. The author glossed over this MOMENT. She needs to go deeper into what the heroine is feeling and thinking. What about this dance, this moment, this man scares her. Help the reader feel what she’s feeling so that when he moves into the second dance, she has to choose to stay or leave. Make her make a choice. Right now, he’s choosing *for* her. Which makes her less of a proactive character.

    As soon as the couple begins the next dance the heroine thinks "I don't want this dance to ever end."

    That right there is a KEY LINE, but it’s flat-out text-book TELLING. Why doesn’t she want this dance to end? What does this mean to her? Is it him or is it something more, such as the feeling of not being in control and actually liking it. Or feeling safe and protected, even maybe sheltered by someone.

    What does this moment, this dance, maybe even this man (to a degree) mean to her? That doesn’t mean she’s suddenly in love. LOL. Make this moment matter to the Heroine so that it matters to the reader.

    If not, it’s merely a dance that the author has TOLD the reader that Heroine doesn’t want to end.

    As Mary said, it's time for the characters to stop moving and speaking and give the reader a clue. In this particular example, that CLUE is vitally important because it lays the foundation for what the heroine does after the dance.

    What drives me BONKERS as a reader is when the author doesn't give the reader a clue and has the character do something. Then when the scene is over, the character takes a bath or drives a car or does her laundry while thinking about what happened and why she did what she did.

    When a writer does that, IMHO, she's taking the concept of scene and sequels way too literally.

  19. One more thing...

    In that contest entry, the author included a perfect paragrpah of appropriate "telling."

    Heroine says X.
    Granny counters with Y.

    Heroine knew it was pointless to get into a discussion with her grandmother over anything that had to do with the northern states; Granny'sgreat-grandfather had fought under the beloved Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard during what Granny referred to as the War of Northern Aggression.

    Once heroine is done thinking that she responds to Granny with new topic.

    Why is that little snippet of telling perfect? Because it's world and character building. And the author didn't go on and on. And the information perfectly fit the moment.

    I'm basically going Switzerland here and saying there's got to be a balance between showing and telling.

    Study books by your target publisher to see how their top-selling and newly published authors balance them.

    I don't think it's fair to compare the telling/showing ration in a Steeple Hill novel to a Revell one. Not saying one is better than the other.

    Respect the lines...

    And their guidelines. :-).

  20. Camy,

    This post was perfect timing for me. I was told by my editor that I do more telling than showing in my story and to keep the heroine/hero in the moment. So I had to rework a few scenes in my book and I revised them just like the examples you showed with dialogue!

    I really think being told to "keep the characters in the moment" helped to clarify the telling versus showing for me.

  21. I really apprecaite this articale. I struggle with knowing the difference between telling and showing, so anything about this topic that I can get my hands on is always helpful! Thanks Camy.:)

  22. Excellent post, Camy, and thanks for walking us through your own example. That really helps make it much clearer.

    I have a question, though. In my current WIP, the first chapter is split between the hero's and heroine's POVs. Open with the hero, he is surrounded by people, taking action, giving orders, which not only sets up the scene and the story but also tells the reader a lot about him. Easy to do a lot of showing.

    However, switch to heroine's POV. She is alone in this crowd, not interacting with anyone, not speaking, clearly isolated, largely by her own intent. This is very important to her character development, as in subsequent chapters we find out why she is behaving this way, and her behavior needs to be a marked contrast to the hero's. Is there a way to develop this with more showing rather than just a lot of introspection? To some extent we do need to know what's going on in her head, although I have left the backstory to filter in bit by bit during the course of the story. Any suggestions?

  23. Camy, you're trying to make us work!

    When I'm revising I always thing..."Cut this first draft out and save it, then later I'll have my 'bad example' all handy.

    But that's a nuisance. Not to mention somewhat embarrasssing. So I forget usually.

    When I revise I always keep my eyes open for Telling scenes. They are a great place to lengthen a book. I usually aim for a first draft to be about 10,000 words short because I know it'll grow that much on revisions.

  24. Another Camy post to print out for future reference!
    Some days my TELLINGs jump out at me with a red flag. Other days they just lay there daring me to see them.

    Is there somewhere I can buy editing glasses?

  25. Thanks Ruthy! And for the record, I'll take YOUR snickerdoodles anyday!!!

    Julie, thanks! There isn't different criteria for telling near the end, but sometimes telling enables the pacing to remain fast, and I'll do more telling for that reason. My rule of thumb is, I try to have a really good reason for telling if I leave it in.

    Mary, as I mentioned above, telling isn't bad! I've had editors ask me to add more in. However, I've also had editors say they sometimes see so MUCH telling that it makes the writing look unprofessional. So if you have a good balance that enables the story to flow smoothly, telling is not bad. Just don't go overboard.

    Sandra--Yum, burritos! It's lunchtime here in California!

    Kirsten--great job! You inserted all that information in dialogue, which is awesome! My only suggestion would be that last paragraph of dialogue, to make it a bit more "natural" sounding. But other than that, it was great! You added more emotion in the "showing" than you had in the "Telling," which makes the segment come alive.

    Melanie, that's where I learned it too, from contest judges! LOL I always do too much telling in my first draft and have to go back in and add more showing in my revisions--showing doesn't come naturally to me at all! But I've learned to recognize it and know when to change it (and when not to) in revisions.

    Thanks, Janet! I'm gluten free this month, so I'll just have blueberries and cream. :)

    Keli, I can totally relate! Sometimes, though, I'll grit my teeth and delete some lovely showing because it messes up the pacing. But I save them if they're longer scenes and sometimes I'll post them on my blog as "deleted scenes" from my book! LOL

    Sarah, I needed to see LOTS of examples before I "got" it, so you're not alone! I actually don't think your original is really "telling," but your revision is much better because you've added some extended description (ranch houses) and some emotional nuances. Good job!

    Kav--you're absolutely right, showing always brings more movement to the scene. Sometimes you don't want movement, which is where it's good to tell instead of show. In suspense and thriller novels, I notice telling AFTER the climax because you want to slow the pacing after the climax and wrap up loose threads from the mystery or crime.

    Julie, personification is always better than straight telling, but I usually try not to name the emotion (fear) and instead make the reader feel and experience the emotion with the character as if the reader is in the character's body, especially if the emotion is a strong one like fear. Minor emotions like relief or curiosity I don't always resort to showing and will sometimes name the emotion, but I always try to show if it's a really strong emotion. Sometimes personifications don't quite allow the reader to experience the emotion--for example, I can feel claws at my throat, but I don't feel fear when I read "fear clawed at her throat." Does that make sense? I'd probably do something like, "breath clawed at her throat, but her muscles were frozen" because breath clawing at her throat induces a feeling of panic in me if I can't breathe, and that's close to the fear the character is feeling.


  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. Thanks so much, Sue! I'm the same way, I do better when I see examples.

    Teri, you know, I have Susan's MP3 of the workshop but haven't listened to it yet! I'll have to do that!

    Thanks so much, Victoria!

    Rachael, it's a learning process for me, too!

    Gina, I don't think that the line "she didn't want the dance to ever end" is exactly telling. It could also be the character's thoughts to herself, which would be introspective narrative. The telling I'm talking about is more like the sort of telling to an audience as opposed to what the character would be saying to him or herself. For example, I could believe the heroine would tell herself, "I wish this dance would never end." but I couldn't believe the heroine would tell herself, "Jake hasn't been back in over five years, since his daddy died" because she already knows that information, so why would she tell herself that again? The information is more to inform the reader, or the "audience," which makes it seem more like "telling" than introspection. That's my take on it, anyway.

    Here's my take on your example:
    Heroine knew it was pointless to get into a discussion with her grandmother over anything that had to do with the northern states; Granny'sgreat-grandfather had fought under the beloved Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard during what Granny referred to as the War of Northern Aggression.

    It's true that it's not bad even though it is telling, because it explains why the heroine changes the subject. But the writer could also tweak it so that it doesn't sound like the character is "telling" this to an audience, and instead sounds more like introspection:

    She was about to respond, but then realized another northern states discussion would be pointless. Unless she really wanted to hear again about Granny's great-grandfather fighting under the beloved Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard during "the War of Northern Aggression"? That would be a no.

    The way it's phrased, it makes it sound more like the heroine's immediate thought to herself: Did she really want to hear about this? That would be a no.

    As I mentioned in my article, Telling Is Not Bad. But sometimes you can tweak the telling so that it's not so obviously telling, but still convey the information.

    Good going, Rose! That's a really great way of putting it, "keep the characters in the moment."

    You're welcome, Casey! If you're interested, I also have more examples of showing and telling on my website here.

    EC--good question! What you can do is simply utilize Motivation Reaction Units. For example, she gets bumped by a woman not watching where she's going (Motivation). The heroine thinks to herself, Oh, that's Mrs. Collins, I could say hello ... no, she looks like she's in an important conversation, I don't want to bother her (Reaction). (Or whatever introspection the heroine has with herself for not interacting with Mrs. Collins.) You break up long segments of introspection by having Motivations, then Reactions, which creates an impression of movement in the story even though it's only thought reactions.

    Mary--LOL I do the same thing! I'm always short in my first drafts because I know I have to go back in and add more showing and that lengthens the manuscript.

    Debra, if you find out where to buy them, let me know! LOL I have a hard time seeing telling in my own work--I think most writers are that way. I think it just takes time and practice and growing in our craft.


  28. Nice post, though I'm afraid to look at my current WIP at the moment. I've just been trying to get 500 words per day with what little time I have. I've barely begun the editing.

  29. Thanks, Camy! And you're right the last line of dialogue needed work. I went back and worked it over; now Cooper makes sense. :o)

  30. Camy said: It’s like a character saying to her husband, “Charles, Mrs. Smith, the woman who stole your father away from your mother and ran away with him to the Bahamas, has called asking to speak to you after fifteen years of silence.”

    And I say you have to give me a spew alert before a line like that!!! I about snorted my diet Dr. Pepper. :)

    Great post, Camy. So helpful to see the difference spelled out. I've found that I tell when I'm in a hurry or even being lazy. Janet recently read something for me, and she found lots of places I could add emotion and make the story a lot fuller. I was amazed at how many times I took the easy way out and didn't catch it later! :)

    It's definitely something I need to add to my revision check list.

  31. Camy, YES, that makes a lot of sense about the personification -- thank you!

    I guess I must be a pretty simple gal, though, because sometimes, depending on the writer, the phrase written to elicit fear out of reader almost confuses me more, stopping me in the flow of the story as I reread it to try and understand what the author is saying.

    Also, I have read books where phrases that authors have used to analogize an emotion almost come off sounding silly, at least to me, which also takes me out of the moment.

    Obviously it's a pretty tricky thing to do, making a reader "feel" what you want them to feel without "telling," and in a way that doesn't detract from the story, but then if it was easy, everybody would be writing books, right?


  32. I am so proud of you for your perseverance in running and training for the marathon. Great post too!

  33. Thank you, Camy! That's something I hadn't thought of. I will definitely try that technique, I believe it will work very well in context of that scene. I appreciate your help!

  34. Walt, I would strongly suggest you just work on your rough draft and don't even think about these types of revision techniques until it's done! For some writers, it's easier to just crank out the rough draft first, because doing revisions can stall the forward momentum.

    Great, Kristen!

    Sorry for the spewing, Missy! :)

    Julie, I think it just depends on the writer and the preference of the reader. There's lots of literary writers whose prose I really don't get, but it doesn't mean they're not great writers. We each have realized that our books are not going to appeal to every reader out there. I'm okay with that.

    Thanks, Cheryl!

    EC--You're welcome! I hope that works well for you!


  35. Thanks so much for those three examples, Camy. I always love your lessons. No coffee, I am going to bed!