Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Great Unsaid (A Study of Show vs. Tell)

*All examples in this post are my own and purely made up for the sake of the blog.*

Link to Part II of the Show vs. Tell Discussion

Everyone’s heard the old adage: Actions speak louder than words. But we’re writers, and words are what we’ve got. So the key is to make those words count and act.

Show vs. Tell.


*insert collective groans of frustration from writers around the world*

Agents complain about it, beta readers point it out, industry blogs cite is as one of the single, biggest problems with new writer submissions. But damn, can it be a hard concept to grasp. It’s not quite as mystifying as the answers of the universe, but doesn’t it often feel that way? I remember after writing my first novel, a beta reader pointing out that it was too much tell and not enough show in a particular chapter, at which point I stared blankly at the document and thought, “Huh? Where?”

The aim of Showing, one of the Ultimate Important Things in good writing, is to bring the reader along with the characters, to take them through the story, make them feel, see, and experience what the characters are experiencing, to feel like they are right in the middle of the action and a part of the story, watching it all unfold and happen. How else can a reader connect with characters? How else can characters become real to the reader?

But enough of my babble. Let’s get to the good stuff.

The Great Unsaid

“The Great Unsaid” is the way I like to think about Show vs. Tell. The Great Unsaid is more than just not telling. And it’s more than just showing.

It’s taking the roof off your characters’ world and dropping the reader into the middle of it, without a clue of what’s going on.

It’s making the reader look around, listen, watch and figure out what the story is. It’s much more interesting that way. What creates more tension or keeps the pages turning than a reader trying to figure out what’s happening?

It's through what's not said that the reader learns all they need to know.

This applies in great measure to novel openings. Nothing is better than being dropped right in the middle of the scene and having to race to catch up to the characters. No need for lots of telling in the form of backstory, too much information, or just plain boring details (Many of which are on my own list of first draft grievances).

Anyway… You be the judge with the following examples, which show how The Great Unsaid is effective. I’ll start with a teeny, minor example, and work my way up.:

In the following scene, a guy and girl are waiting for class to start. They are in a discussion about their after school yearbook meeting. This is told from the guy’s POV. For argument’s sake, this is the first time the reader is meeting these characters.

I shrugged. “You know, I don’t know why she’s agreed to let Leon take the majority of the year book pictures. He’s not even good.”

Dana rolled her eyes. “He is good. And you know it.”

“Give me a break, D.” I shook my head and held back what I really wanted to say.

She raised her eyebrows. “Jealous much?”

“Jealous? Are you even serious? Of that loser?”

“Sounds like jealousy to me.” With that flip of her hair and the sarcastic lilt in her voice, I could have screamed.

“Besides,” she whispered with a sly smile. “You take good pictures, too.”

I laughed louder than I meant to, remembering that winter day in Central Park, how it had started with photos of snowy landmarks and ended with us kissing in Strawberry Fields, the snow practically melting around us. Things hadn’t cooled off much between us since.

See, a scene like this grabs me more as a reader because when it starts I have no idea these two ever even hooked up. I think they are just a guy and a girl who work on yearbook together and are having an argument. As a matter of fact, I'm not even sure they get along, which makes the reveal of their relationship that much more of a punch. There is no sexual tension, no clue to their history until she makes a flirty comment and he has the memory. Isn’t this much more effective than giving the info before the scene? Let’s say before their conversation I had said something like:

While waiting for Spanish to start, I turned to Dana. She looked good, sitting there in her black jeans and tee shirt and I thought about that first day we’d hooked up last winter. Six months later, our relationship was still going strong.

If I launched into the conversation at that point, wouldn’t it be more blah, knowing exactly where the characters stood with each other? Isn’t it more fun to try and figure out where it’s going and learn something new about the characters? Doesn’t the NOT saying it upfront make it more powerful when it is revealed?

Another example of show vs. tell via The Great Unsaid:

Told from the POV of a girl on her way to school:

Glancing at the clock on my dashboard, I pulled into the same spot I always parked in. I realized I had to hurry. I was meeting my boyfriend before homeroom, like I had every morning for the past year. He didn’t like when I was late and we’d had one too many fights over it already. I hated disappointing him.


I took the turn into the parking lot faster than I should have. With barely a glance at myself in the mirror, I hopped out of the car and hurried across the parking lot. A chill cut through the air, but I was sweating.

Josh waited at my locker, his jaw clenched. “You’re late.”

“Sorry, babe.” I stretched on my toes to kiss him but he turned away.

“Seriously, can’t you ever be on time?” When he crossed his arms over his chest, I felt something tighten in mine.

“I said I was sorry.” My voice was barely a whisper.

The first example is not only straight up boring, but it tells us too much off the bat. It tells everything, actually, and doesn't show a thing. In the second example, we read along to find out where she is going and what’s going on. Watching her rush from her car makes me ask, what’s the rush, where is she going, why is she in a hurry? It makes me want to know what happens next. I don’t need her to tell us this guy is her boyfriend. By showing her kissing him, I see they are in some type of relationship. I don’t need her to tell how she hates disappointing him, I can feel it in the tightening of her chest, in her barely whispered response. I don’t need to be told how angry he gets, I can see it in his clenched jaw, in the turning of his head, his crossed arms.

An example of a little more traditional show vs. tell is below. This is a typical case of where a tell-y scene can sneak into a story and how it can be fleshed out for more character development and action.

This scene is from the point of view of a guy observing Jeffrey, his best friend, making conversation with a couple from their high school that they don’t know during a basketball game.

She leaned over, shook Jeffrey’s hand. “I’m Teresa, this is my boyfriend Phil.” Phil nodded another hello, looking Jeffrey up and down.

Jeffrey stuck out his hand with a big smile. “What’s up, man?”

Phil smiled. “Hey. How’s it going?” He nodded to the court and said something about our team I didn’t quite hear, his posture relaxed. Jeffrey nodded and grinned.

The conversation rolled into something about the game and the team we were playing. Phil glanced over Jeffrey’s shoulder a few times, toward a group of girls huddled by the gym’s back doors. Teresa didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care if she did. I tried to follow the conversation, but I was lost.


She leaned over, shook Jeffrey’s hand. “I’m Teresa, this is my boyfriend Phil.” Phil nodded another hello, looking Jeffrey up and down.

Jeffrey stuck out his hand with a big smile. “What’s up, man?”

Phil smiled. “Hey. How’s it going?” He nodded to the court and said something about our team I didn’t quite hear, his posture relaxed. Jeffrey nodded and grinned.

“So what’s up with these clowns?” Jeffrey chin nodded to the visiting team.

Phil snorted. “They don’t have a prayer. They’ve only won one game the whole season and it was against Southtown.

Jeffrey grimaced and laughed. “Southtown? I didn’t even know they were allowed to play anymore. After awhile it just gets embarrassing for a team like that, you know?”

I stared at him, amazed. How did he know about this shit? And who was Southtown?

“Yeah, right?” Phil laughed too, looking over Jeffrey’s shoulder. I followed his glance to a group of freshman girls. He stared for a long moment, his eyes roaming the whole group of them, almost drinking their bodies in with his eyes. Teresa, still hanging on his arm, didn’t seem to notice.

“We’re only up by ten though.” Jeffrey looked up at the scoreboard. “You’d think if they were that bad, we’d be killing.”

Phil nodded, and as much as I tried to follow along, I was lost.

Again, not much commentary needed. Same as the other examples. Don’t we learn more about the two guys’ personalities by seeing their conversation rather than the first example that just tells the reader they had a conversation? And don’t we get a creeptastic impression of Phil as he’s ogling the freshman girls? And a clue about the girlfriend who doesn't notice or care? And something about the MC too, in his reactions to what he sees and hears?

Even if it is just a boring conversation about a basketball game, glossing over it, as I did in the first example, makes the reader feel rushed and like they’re missing something. It pulls them right out of the story and makes those characters feel flat and unreal.

Show vs. Tell, The Great Unsaid, whatever you want to call it, is nearly impossible to put your finger on, yet one of the simplest things in the world. It’s difficult to learn, but once you get it, you get it, and it becomes part of your "writing toolbox," to borrow a term from Stephen King.

The bad thing is, getting it seems to only come through tons of practice. The more we write and the more we read, the better we get at showing vs. telling, but I do think it’s something all writers probably struggle with throughout their careers, especially in first drafts when we are trying to just get the story out. I’ve written a handful of novels and even though I feel I’m able to see it easier than I used to, it still sneaks in all over my drafts. I’m sure it always will.

Link to Part II of the Show vs. Tell Discussion


  1. I liked your second example, I felt more in reaction to the difference between the telling and showing. In the telling, okay, she's late and her boyfriend doesn't like it, understandable. In the showing, the boyfriend came across as a jerk and the effect he has on his girlfriend was like creepily watching emotional abuse. Her wounded puppy reaction says this isn't the first time he's overreacted and I wonder if this controlling aspect seeps into other areas of the relationship. Great post.
    - Sophia.

  2. Great post and examples! The only thing I'd add is a reminder that sometimes telling is better than showing. Not all scenes need a play-by-play, so summarizing can be a writer's friend. :-)

  3. Great post! Show vs. tell is such a hard thing to explain. (Which is probably why it's such a hard thing to grasp, as a writer!)

  4. I always have a problem with this--thanks so much for the advice! And I love your examples--sounds like a great story!

  5. Great post...this is something several of us Twitter peeps have been working on weekly by captioning images...showing what's happening rather than telling...and it is hard. We'd love to have some extra responses...We're in week #3...visit us at

  6. Yes, thanks so much for this post. Very timely. I'm getting more of an idea of what Telling is these days (there are subtle forms!), and am posting my own blog ideas about it tomorrow, but I still can't help but think it HAS to be ok in instances where you have to summarize unimportant actions or info. Hmm....!

  7. Sophia - Thanks!

    ink - yes, a great point. I'm planning a follow up post for that exact thing.

    Kaitlin - Thanks. Yes, it's nearly impossible to explain and understand, though I may suffer trying both.

    Meredith - Thank you!

    Charissa - Thanks for visiting my blog. I will def check that link out!

    Carol - Yes, you are absolutely right. I am planning a follow up post in defense of Telling!:)

    Cold as Heaven - Thanks!

  8. I agree that getting it requires tons of writing, but also critiquing. Sometimes it's a lot easier to see in someone else's work, and when you do that enough, then you start to see it in your own.

    Fantastic post! :)

  9. Susan - You are very right in that critiquing shows it so much more than seeing it in your own work. One more reason why beta reading is so important to developing our own work as well! Great point.:)