When you take part in a writing workshop or writers group, you will often be told, “show, not tell.” So what does this mean? When you tell, you remove the reader from the action, characters, setting and plot, leaching the emotional reaction the reader has to your story.

When you show, you are writing in scene, putting the reader right in the thick of the action, emotional or physical or both.

I love having old files to embarrass myself with. The following is an example of telling, from an old version of Gordath Wood.

They traveled north, as best she could tell, taking the road for several days through the grasslands to where it broke up into rough going, rocky underfoot. Part of it became bare rock, and the horses struck sparks where their shod hooves landed. It became steep, and Lynn was one of the first to dismount and walk. She was pleased to see the captain glance her way and with a quiet order, let the others know to follow her lead.

Each day they were climbing more and more, and the air had gone from cool to sharp and chill. The saddle blanket was no longer adequate during the night, and she never warmed up, even after riding and walking all day.

On one of their rests, she sat down on a huge tumbled boulder after watering Silk. Lynn was weary from walking. The captain came over to her, pulling his gloves off and flexing his hands. She knew they had to be stiff from holding the reins – hers were. She looked up at him dully. He regarded her for a moment, then said,

What I’ve done here is I’ve lumped together the long days’ activities and told you everything that happens. And I mean everything. This went on for a long time. It’s not very interesting, is it? I am clearly rushing through this part to get to the good stuff. Not only that, time starts and stops in this section. Lynn gets an approving glance from Crae at one point, but since I am not writing in scene, this is extraneous wordage. We don’t know how often it happens, how many days in, when, where, etc.

The last graf, there’s action in scene, where I’ve decided to stop with the summary and deign to let you back into the story. But by then, it’s too late. I’ve lost you.

Telling is often filled with this kind of abundance of detail that contains nothing of interest. Telling is another way of boring the reader.

Here’s the rewritten version.

In the darkness of a little clearing off the forest road, Lynn dragged the saddle off her borrowed mare, and propped it next to Crae’s against an outcropping of rock. Her muscles ached and her mind was heavy with exhaustion.

Lynn’s eyes closed against her will, and she curled up next to the fire, resting her head on her arm. Just for a few moments, she thought, but she woke to his hand on her shoulder and sat up, disoriented. He loomed in shadow over her, waiting patiently, something in his hand.

She mumbled something even she could not decipher. He handed her a cup.

“Drink this,” he said. “It will keep you warm and soothe the aches.”

She nodded vaguely and sipped. The drink was rich and herbal, with a taste she could not place. It reminded her of something dark, like earth, that smelled better than it tasted. She swallowed politely and then put her hands around the cup. She had gotten colder and the drink helped a bit.

Crae sat back down, looted through his pack again, and handed her a thick flatbread and some pungent cheese.

“Thanks,” she said. He got some for himself and they ate in comfortable silence, the horses tearing peacefully at the grass, occasionally stamping a hoof or switching their tails. Lynn took another sip. The drink was growing on her. The cold receded a little, though the wind tousled the top of her hair with greedy fingers.

If I’ve done my job right, I’ve taken the long passages detailing their travel and encapsulated them in one scene that details their hardship and discomfort. Then, after establishing that this is a long haul by putting the reader in a scene, I can go on to say, “Three days later…” and they arrive at the next place where something happens. This is showing. It’s no less descriptive, but now the scene means something instead of just piling on the details.

Next time: Avoiding the action catalog.


martin owton · May 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Brave of you to show the world your old versions of this.

Patrice Sarath · May 22, 2009 at 5:44 pm

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Rachel Danielle · May 31, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I just recently learned the art of showing, not telling. I did lots of telling before, and I still have to remind myself all of the time- don’t do it! Thank you so much for your e-mail and I am so sorry that it has taken me forever to respond. I appreciated the reply very much, and I’ll get back to you soon! (I’m not able to get internet connection with our laptop all of the time).

Patrice Sarath · June 1, 2009 at 9:35 pm

I think I had to rewrite about a third of GW to avoid telling. Once I did, the story became more interesting, more vital, more immediate. It really does work!

No worries — I understand tech glitches!

Phyllis Boling · July 25, 2009 at 5:34 am

Wondering if you conduct show, not tell writing classes on line or know of any classes on this subject?

Patrice Sarath · July 26, 2009 at 10:46 am

I don’t conduct formal classes, but I can do some more blog posts on the topic. I’ll just have to figure out a good format. Would people be interested in sending me prose chunks of 500 words or so to be reworked?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.