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Your Friends Told You Not to Tell

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

As a freelance editor and professional critiquer, I have discovered that most beginning writers struggle with the concept of “show vs. tell.” They nod, say, “Yeah, I get that.” And then still write: “She was sad and lonely.”

That’s “telling” language. “Showing” language would be: “Her eyes grew damp as she hugged her husband’s photograph to her chest.” And even that could be made more vivid. But notice I’m conveying her sadness and loneliness through action and description. That’s basically all you need to do to to prevent your story from feeling flat. Because “telling” is two-dimensional writing. The reader receives no payout from a story that’s written like a summary.

Hints that you are using telling include, but are not limited to: using –ly adverbs, using the words “feels like,” “seems to be,” “appears as if,” telling us what the person is feeling instead of showing their facial reactions, or explaining something the reader could deduce through dialogue or reaction.

Here’s an example of flat, summarized writing taken from something I wrote a long time ago:

I cried and tried to push her away, tried to kick her off, but it just made things worse for me until Mom finally came into the room and yanked Stacey off and sent her to her bedroom.

So what’s wrong with that sentence, besides being long and cumbersome? For one thing, it isn’t very interesting. “…it made things worse…” is a very generic statement. How did things become worse? What was the character thinking or feeling? And as for Stacey being yanked off the protagonist…How did Stacey react? Was their mother fed up, or astonished? We know nothing about anyone’s true emotional state throughout. So how would I change it?

Stacey grasped my hair, curled it around her evil fist and yanked. I howled, scratched at her face, tore at her neck. She screamed and let go, her face red, eyes big as those damn Peppermint Patties she was always cramming down her throat.

“You fat freak,” I hollered, trying to catch my breath. Her eyes narrowed, and she gave a tribal scream before head-butting me in the stomach, sending me backward onto my bed. My head thwacked the headboard. I gasped, kicked at her chubby belly.

Mom came through my bedroom door and growled, “What’s going on in here?” 

Stacey leaped on me, slugging me in the head, yelling, “You filthy piece of trash! You ugly moron from hell, go back to the hole you came out of!”

Mom grasped Stacey around the stomach and pulled her off me, the creases in her brow deeper than I’d ever seen. Her voice and Stacey’s fought for domination, I couldn’t decipher one from the other. I touched my head, felt for blood, but found none. meanwhile, Mom shoved Stacey out the door, threatening to call the police.

Although there’s more I could do to improve that text, you get the idea. It shows how things become worse. It shows the fight in detail. So much more interesting, don’t you think?

Look through your sentences. Are you informing the reader what he or she needs to know by stating it in a two-dimensional way? Or are you adding details and action to make the scene come alive for the reader? The first way will have the reader putting down the book to do something else. The second way will keep the reader rivted well past his or her bedtime.

Which type of writer would you rather be?

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