Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Difference Between Showing and Telling

So I was talking recently with Robyn about the difference between showing and telling. And I realized a simple truth:

The difference lies in the verb.

It was cold. = Telling

Amy shivered in the cold. = Showing.

An active verb connotates a showing sentence. But this isn't always true. I could have said, "Amy thought it was cold," and that does employ an active verb--but the beef of that sentence lies in the passive verb, not the active one.

To figure out what to show, ask: How do you know this?

It was cold. = A simple fact. Ask: how do you know it's cold?

Answer = Amy shivers.

Now, obviously, that's the ultimate in simplicity. You can't just stop there.

The difference between boring showing and good showing is in the emotion.

Amy shivered in the cold. = Boring showing.

Amy shivered: the cold seemed to reach all the way through her skin and into her heart. = Good showing.

Notice how they get longer? A picture's worth a thousand words--so to show that picture, it might take all thousand words.

Does this mean everything you write should be "showing"? NO. Lemme say that again: NO. Sometimes it's just cold. Say it and move on. But if this is a point where you can and should show character development or enhance the story, show it.


Danyelle L. said...

You are amazing, you know that? This is one of the simplest, clearest, best definitions of show vs tell I have every come across. Thank you for sharing!

Tana said...

Great advice!

PJ Hoover said...

Very cool way to break it down, Beth!

Trisha Pearson said...

That is a great way of explaining show versus tell! Thank you - it gives me something to keep in mind.

Kelly H-Y said...

Wonderfully put! It's so funny, the timing of your blog post. Do you remember my post on showing, not telling a couple months ago? Last week, I turned it into more of an article, and started the process of submitting. I love the way you explained the difference!

Kate said...

So simple and yet easy to miss. Thanks for the post.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Showing is important but you can't "show" the entire book.

Samantha Elliott said...

Hear, hear!

Keri Mikulski said...


You are an excellent teacher and writer!! :)

C.R. Evers said...

very well put, Beth!

Tabitha said...

Yep, action is definitely the key to showing. It's so simple, and yet for some reason it takes new writers awhile for that to sink in. Personally, I think it's because so few people actually define it. Glad there's another definitive definition out there now. :)

I like your example. I think you could take that final sentence further:

Amy shivered. The cold seeped through her skin, right into her heart.

This is a combination of showing and active prose, but the two are so intertwined that I think they're near impossible to separate. :)

Robyn Campbell said...

YAY teach! It's no wonder you're such a GREAT teacher. I really do get it now. And I'm sure I'll find something else to BUG you about. Hehehe Thanks :)

Heather Zundel said...

Great job Beth! Bravo! I always knew it was in the verbs and action words, but you put it so succinctly. Kudos!

Erin said...

Really good lesson here! I think we often forget the simple things in writing.

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post, Beth. Must be the teacher in you!

Lynnette Labelle

Traci said...

Excellente!! ;-) Make sure you file this away where we can find it easily! LOL

Davin Malasarn said...

Those are some excellent examples, Beth. Thanks!

Steph Su said...

True, and a good example. However, more words is not necessarily better. I think it really comes down to the quality of the words you choose, like you mentioned above. NIce post though!

Anonymous said...

This has been the single most obstructive concept for me to get over in my writing. Thank you so much for the putting it so clearly!I'm sure you have helped dozens!

Unknown said...

Anon--I'm so glad you liked it! :)

Anonymous said...

omg its soo good

Anonymous said...

So I'm three years late, but let me say this: In this short, sweet post, you've helped me understand the concept of showing versus telling.
To think, I could've referred to this post as opposed to going through the too-intricate ones littering the blogosphere.

Anna-Marie Bailes said...

Excellent post - and still being talked about on twitter! Many thanks.

Jared B. Peterson said...

Wow, I've really been struggling with show vs. tell, and my writing book just makes me confused, but YOU put it in a such a simple, understandable way that I think I can do it now. Thank you, you're the BEST!

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