Show vs. Tell — Part I

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
By Renni Browne & Dave King
Second Edition

I was recently in a small group of writers and we were discussing show and tell. Or should I say show vs. tell. The old way of writing was tell, describe, narrate. The new way of writing is scenes, show, illustrate with words. Show, don’t tell. Why? Click to Tweet #amwriting #showvtell #selfediting

Quite simply modern readers who’ve been watching television and movies are hooked on the action, not explanation. Showing us the story instead of telling us, puts us in the middle of the action. “What exactly makes a scene? For one thing it takes place in real time. Your readers watch events as they unfold…In scenes, events are seen as they happen rather than described after the fact. Even flashbacks show events as they unfold, although they have unfolded in the past within the context of the story.” Pg. 7

“Scenes usually have settings as well, specific locations the readers can picture. In Victorian novels, these settings were often described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. Nowadays, literature is leaner and meaner, and it’s often a good idea to give your readers just enough detail to jump-start their imaginations so they can picture your settings for themselves.” Pg. 8

Our debate centered on speculative and sci-fi novels. Yes, there has to be a little “telling,” a description of the world you’re trying to create. It seemed to me though, that these writers felt that they should be vindicated for wanting to “tell,” rather than “show.” One thing drummed into me time after time during my classes at Christian Writers Guild was “show, don’t tell.”

My novel, “Meghan’s Choice,” is historical. And I do have to describe a bit of setting, because Meghan ends up in a wild railroad town. But I didn’t just “describe” this town. I walked with Meghan down Main Street. I saw what she saw. I heard what she heard. I smelled what she smelled. Get the picture? Use the senses to “describe” and set the scene without narration.

Meghans ChoiceEXAMPLES from “Meghan’s Choice”


Meghan got off the train with her senses reeling. She was put off by the porter, appalled at the behavior of the men in the town, and shocked at everything she saw, heard, and smelled. She walked south on Main Street. Unbelievably, she had to be rescued by a dance hall girl, who helped her navigate to a safe street.

Show: (only the part where she walks down Main Street)

Meghan carefully crossed the railroad tracks, so her heels didn’t get caught in between the railroad ties or step in a hole. The last thing she needed was to draw attention to herself if the Negro was right. She counted two sets of tracks, with three or four more in varying degrees of construction. She dodged people going all different directions around her.

Men carrying lumber yelled out, “Watch out ahead! Out of the way! Lumber coming!” Other men unloaded flat wagonloads of the iron rail itself. Crash! A foreman shouted when one was dropped. “Be careful with that! The iron came all the way from Wales! It cost the railroad a pretty penny!”

Bong. Ching. The spikes were driven as a length of rail was hammered into place.

train ovalShe gaped at the huge, black, steam-belching engine with its large cow catcher in front and gave it a wide berth. Hisssssss. Small clouds of mist whirled like snakes around the wheels. The large black smokestack on top at the front of the engine trailed a wisp of stray smoke. The engine was off, but its sheer size was intimidating, considering she was only a few feet away. Meghan shuddered as she walked in front of it.

She cleared the tracks and headed south on Main Street. The stockyards were to her left. Several saloons near the tracks were lined up going straight east on both sides of the street. Da te da te da da, the tinny pianos accompanied the low crooning of saloon girl singers. Clink, chink—the glasses rang together in the saloons as one toast after another was offered. The “yee-haws” of caterwauling cowboys could be heard in the distance. Bang! The occasional distant gunshot fired could celebrate the end of a drive, or serve as a warning.

Mingled with the cow manure from the nearby stockyards, the smells from the saloons and dance halls were strong. Liquor flowed in abundance, strong perfume wafted from ‘soiled doves’ and a sweaty stench emanated from drunken cowboys. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes reeked.

How can they breathe? How could this little place have so many saloons?

See the difference? A scene shows the actions, the reader is in the middle of it, and that’s where you want them.

“Showing your story to your readers through scenes will not only give your writing immediacy. It will give your writing transparency.” Pg. 9 Click to Tweet #amwriting #showvtell #selfediting

What about you? What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

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