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Telling and Showing… and Layering


Don’t you just hate it when you enter a contest and the judge tells you that you need to do more showing and less telling but they don’t tell you how?

When I used to judge contests, I always turned their manuscript over or included a whole new blank page using examples from their actual work.  I would type up how they told that part and rewrite it to “show” them how they could have made it feel a little more real to the reader.

That’s basically all showing is–making it feel real. 

It can be such a difficult concept and yes, I do believe there are times when telling makes more sense and works in a scene better, but sometimes it can be overdone. 

I tell A LOT in my first drafts.  I’m pretty sure even the most seasoned writing veteran slips into tell mode during first drafts.  In this last first draft I wrote, I was racing to get through it so fast, I didn’t have the time to really get into the meat of every scene and make it breathe.  I wanted to get the “idea” of the scene and mood down–just the idea.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t times when I was so far into the story, I naturally showed what was happening.  Believe it or not, once the concept begins to really make sense, your basic writing will show it more and more. 

I’ve talked about layering before.  I know, I know…it’s one of my favorite words. <g>  But if you look at that second or third draft as a challenge and actually look forward to adding all that fine nuance to your piece, it can actually be fun. 

To me, that’s when the story and characters come alive, when I can taste what they eat, smell what they smell–you get the idea.

I thought I’d give a few examples of show vs. tell.  This first one, I just shared on Dana’s blog.  It’s from an article I published either last year or the year before on writing contemporary romances.  The others are off the top of my head and could probably use another draft  (heh heh) but they’ll give you an idea.


    The sun rose over the ocean and made the day too hot for people on the beach.


    Wincing into the glare of the sun, Sarah slipped on a pair of sunglasses so she could watch the play of colorful rays over the water. With one hand, she plucked her sopping T-shirt from her neck and blew cool air over her chest. She wished she could kick off her flip-flops and bury her toes in the sand, but at this time of day, it would fry them right off her feet.


    “Rita, you are such a bitch,” Diana said, furious.


    “Rita, you are such a bitch.”  Venom dripped from each carefully enunciated word.  Diana’s knuckles glowed white where she gripped the phone, her eyes snapping fire. 


    Old Martin loved kids.


    Hardly a day passed that Silvia didn’t see Martin pitching a ball or giving piggy back rides to the neighborhood kids.  Giddy smiles stretched his lips wide, revealing teeth, chipped and yellowed with age, and she just knew from the way he tightened his fists, that his arthritis made carrying them on his back a real chore.  

     Didn’t stop him.  To Martin, those kids worked as a powerful elixir–they kept him going long after loneliness and spousal deaths had taken his friends from the neighborhood. 


    Suzy wanted Ryan.  She stretched, knowing she looked sexy enough now.


    Suzy stretched her body, knowing the slow movement would flex the toned muscles in her calves and thighs.  Hours sweating on that damned Stairmaster would finally pay off. 

    Swallowing a grin, she raised her arms high over her head, making sure the pink, crop-top rose just enough to display the twinkle of diamond in her belly button.  When she heard Ryan’s muffled groan, she quickly bent forward to let the fall of her long, red hair hide the smirk she couldn’t stop.  One more move and he was hers.    


Heather asked for an example in first person.  This is a scene from my current WIP. 🙂


     I was so scared and shocked over the experience, I had to stop in the middle of the parking lot.  I’d never been in anything like that–never seen so many people die without provocation.


     Stopping in the middle of the parking lot, I took a deep breath of the rapidly cooling night air and rested my palm on a light pole.  The metal was still warm from the sun and I reached out to wrap the fingers of both hands around it as if to anchor myself to earth.  I stared for a moment up at the full moon–a bright, beautiful beacon of reality in a sooty black sky.  Cold pain tightened my chest, a combination of grief, shock and yeah, terror.  I’d been tracking the monsters for more than ten years–had started as a teenager–and I’d never, ever, come across anything like what I’d fought in that blood-spattered hallway.  I’d never seen so many people slaughtered without hesitation or thought, with such casual disregard.

     And, oh God, I had never stood ankle-deep in ravaged remains with the metallic and rapidly thickening tang of death clogging my throat.


Okay, I did tell a bit in the second example, but not as much as I did in the first.  In that one, I told you the main character was horrified.  In the second, I showed her dealing with the horror, showed that she was trying to anchor herself in reality because what she had just seen had pulled her very far from it. 

All of these examples could probably be a bit better, but hopefully, it “shows” the idea here.  <g>   Challenge yourself and write the scene several times.  Squeeze every bit of use out of it.  Layer characterization, setting, emotion– all of this can be done in the showing.  Some people make a list of the five senses and make sure at least three of them are covered.

I think the trick is to make it fun and keep it real. 🙂  


  1. March 20, 2007    

    Got any first person examples? I’m a horrible first draft teller, and I wonder if it is because I write in first person or because I write crappy first drafts.

    My rough drafts read like a Dick and Jane primer. 😮

  2. March 20, 2007    

    Sure, I’ll add one in an edit. I’m currently writing in first, so it’ll be good practice for me, too. 🙂

  3. March 20, 2007    

    Hope that’s an okay example of first person. Showing in first person is way more tricky than it is in third because we’re basically “telling” the story directly from a specific viewpoint. It took me a while to get this concept and I still struggle and have to go over my drafts a bit more.

  4. March 20, 2007    

    Hi Rinda,
    I really don’t like “Show don’t tell” either. It just doesn’t do enough to explain what to do and not do. There are times for telling, and times for showing. So I’ve come to replace this phrase with “Give readers experiences not explanations.” So much of what ruins a book is when the author over-explains what’s happening instead of walking us through it, letting us experience it for ourselves.

    Good examples!


  5. March 20, 2007    

    Hi Sara! I love your phrase better, too! That’s all it is, giving an experience. Letting a cp look it over when you’re in the final draft stage helps, too. In fact, when Rachel goes over that “show” version of the 1st person in my WIP, she might cut an adjective or two. I uh, write adjective heavy occasionally and have to go back and slash those slippery suckers.

  6. March 20, 2007    

    That was a great example, Rinda!

  7. March 21, 2007    

    Hey, is that 1st person part from the scene right after the hospital? I haven’t read that since you switched it over to 1st. Sounds good!

    I like Sara’s phrase too. 😉

  8. March 21, 2007    

    Really great post, thanks for the examples too! 🙂

    Just to put another spin on this, I find that I sometimes have the *opposite* problem… Yep, I’m pretty weird like that! 😉 I know it’s not so common, but it can be just as challenging to overcome a tendency to *show* too much in a first draft, and not balance it with the necessarily quieter sections of *telling*. I think I throw in too much action and dialogue for fear of falling into the ‘telling-too-much-trap’ and then end up overcompensating (with dialogue, especially). Interesting timing on this issue btw, I blogged about being “All show and no tell” not long ago! 🙂

  9. March 21, 2007    

    Oh yes, showing too much can be a problem, too. I’ve been there. Had a judge tell me that in a short story contest once.

    Rachel, 1st seems to work better for this story. 🙂

  10. March 21, 2007    

    this is really great. I’m glad that you included examples… makes me want to go back and rework my short story I’m working on. Thanks! 🙂

  11. March 21, 2007    

    You know, show, don’t tell and action verbs, seem to be the most difficult for a lot of people. Just something as simple as “She perched on the edge of the chair.” as opposed to “She sat on the chair.” can make a difference.

  12. March 22, 2007    

    Yes, plus the word “perched” gives us strong characterization. How a person sits tells us about them. They perch, slump or sprawl.

    Oh good, Katie–when I come across articles like these, I do the same thing. In fact, I recently came upon a good one… need to find it.

  13. March 22, 2007    

    Oh, I love that, too – experiences not explanations. Gotta remember that.

    Good examples, Rinda!

  14. March 22, 2007    

    Sunny!!! Hey Sweetie! Kudos on that fantastic review of your new mainstream novel. Way cool. 🙂

  15. Word Doctor Word Doctor
    March 23, 2007    

    That’s because the phrase, “show don’t tell” has become a buzz thing to say, like, “I am a publishing professional, so let me bestow this bit of wisdom I have for you.”

    I do agree that many first-timers sending me manuscripts tend to over-explain their stories. I think it just comes from experience, as a new writer is so afraid that his or her readers won’t understand every detail in the story that they take the fun and creativity out of reading it. I know when I get a chance to sit down and read, I want my mind to go crazy with visual pictures, like I get to develop my own movie. And my movie will be different from your movie, and your movie will be different from her movie, and…you get the picture. To me, that is good writing.

    Rinda, hope all is well with you in Okieville, and your writing is getting inspired by spring yawning itself awake.


  16. Julia Julia
    April 10, 2007    

    You worry too much….Relax….Have some wine…..Go make love to your guy in your book….He sounds yummy…..We Hinkles always did love a rough and tumble guy. Too bad there is so few of them that aren’t jerks….haha…I’m in a sarcastic mood, bored to tears. Hate my job….Rather be drinking a great cup of coffee, reading your novel and fantasizing about your hero and his nice……..

  17. Michael Linker Michael Linker
    June 3, 2009    

    Can you give me an example of a famous landmark or vending machine example? Your examples were marvelous by the way!

  18. George George
    June 3, 2009    

    I need to have sex! I want the usual deal… send Samantha to my doorstep. Condoms would be provided right?….wait! this isn’t the prostitute site?

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