Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In the Zone with Zee: The Original Dilemma: Show, not Tell!!

Hey beautiful people

26th of the month, and I'm back on Tabby's Nocturnal Nights for the monthly Agony Zee advice column. Usually, I feature 2 queries sent in by writers with 'issues & dilemmas', but today I'll have only one topic up. Why? Because it is a quintessential aspect of writing, made even more resonant in the field of writing romance. You guessed it - how to show and not tell in your story.

On this note, here's today's column:


Dear Agony Z

I keep being urged to “show, not tell” by my crit partners. They say what I give isn’t enough, but I don’t understand, since I do give descriptions and explanations. Can you please enlighten me here?

Signed — The one who doesn’t get it.


Dear I-don’t-get-it,

“Show, not tell” is probably the first line you heard when you joined this career. It is probably the most passed-around piece of advice in writing. It doesn’t really get better with time either though, sometimes droning into a sort of litany you get fed up with.

However, there has hardly been most precious advice in writing. In essence, it is what writing is all about. Anyone can string a few sentences together to give an account of a happening. The author, though, goes further, bringing life to this episode. How? By “showing” and not “telling.”

Let’s go to the roots of this statement. “Show” v/s “tell”. What does it imply? Let’s take an example.

The sky was a clear, powdery blue, and the brilliant sun hung like a golden orb in its vast expanse, bathing the world below with bright rays that could blind the eyes when it reflected off water.

It was summer.

Both of these sentences say the same thing, but which one held more appeal? Anyone can tell you it is summer, but what can you as a writer provide your reader with what summer is like? While the first sentence “shows”, the second merely “tells”.
This can also work into planting the setting and giving your reader a feel of where the story takes place. Your story can take place in summer in England. Good. But where in England? Summer as seen in London is very different from summer as seen in the country. Another example could be what summer is like in a dry area like Las Vegas and summer in a humid place like Miami.

“Show, don’t tell” can deepen your story too, and present your writing voice, as well as your character’s mindset. Take the following statement:

He was as sinful as chocolate.

You can use this to describe your hero, but frankly, any woman can tell you a man is as sinful as chocolate. What does the woman you’re writing about, your heroine, think? Say you have two women vying for the same man. Both can describe him as in the above statement, but do you think this would ring true? How about giving your reader more? This can be done by “showing” them what each thinks of the bloke in question, without simply “telling” what he is like.

One woman can say – he was as sinful as chocolate. Like a Mars bar. All hard and dark on the surface, but take a bite and you get to the heart of him, where he was soft and sweet, with just the right amount of sugar merging with the melting bitterness of the dark cocoa coating that held him as the whole he was.

The other woman could say – he was as sinful as chocolate. Almost like extra rich, 70% cocoa extra dark Lindt slabs. Polished and so smooth on the surface, with a crispiness that remained even after you’d taken a bite. It didn’t end even when the delectable concoction started to melt on your tongue, when you got that potent rush of bitterness that stung the taste buds, making you crave more even as you wince. And then the hint of sugar kicked in, soothing and bringing bliss disproportionate to the sharpness that had just invaded your senses. That’s what he was like, an addiction she loathed yet one which she always gave in to when he overcame all her defenses.

In the above paragraphs, you take the same sentence and expand on it, bringing a uniqueness to the story, to your voice, to each character. It can wrap your reader in a world where they hang on to your every word, where they get lost in the meanders of your pen.

How do you do this? By “showing, not telling.”

Now, let's say you need to describe something - bed sheets. Different people will 'feel' the sheet in different ways.

Look at the following examples, and see how many different women are portrayed through one single description:

Like a soft summer breeze drifting along her skin...

The sensation of smooth white sand trailing along her fingers, reminiscent of a the drifting grains inside an hourglass...

Like the skin of a man after showering off the exertion of exercise, smooth, cool, yet with a hint of lingering warmth that permeated all the senses...

Now let's use something else - a brand. What, and how, can you show with a brand?

Many will say dropping the brand name itself in your work is enough to show, like this:

She was dressed in a Chanel suit. – This shows she has money.

But like with chocolate above, you have this superb springboard to use to bring uniqueness to your work, to immerse the reader even more into the story and characterization.

Look at these examples using the Chanel suit:

She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the tweed, lapelled jacket reminiscent of the first creations of Coco Chanel.
– This shows that the suit is old. Either she clings to old stuff (Miss Havisham-like), or the suit can be an old discard she bought in a second-hand store.

She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the tweed, lapelled jacket reminiscent of the first creations of Coco Chanel, except for the bright, vibrant colours of the fabric and its crease-free treatment which left the lapels crisp even after long, drudging day.
– This shows a brand-new suit, as the crease-free treatment is a new concept and the colours a trend of recent seasons. She has money and uses it to regularly update her wardrobe. She is fashion conscious and consequently, can be thought to be a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman.

She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the bright colour of the fabric competing with the sparkle of the Swarovski crystals and the blinding gleam of the platinum jewellery at her throat, ears, wrists and fingers. The bling factor was echoed in her strappy silver sandals and the chunky, heavy metal chain on her custom-made, lizard-skin Birkin. An Hermes scarf trailed out of the bag’s opening, the pure silk showing ladders in its weave where the delicate fabric had caught on the gigantic Tiffany diamond ring on her left hand
– This paragraph shows you a woman who has money and loves to flaunt it. However, the fact that she combines so many brands and is so much a show-off highlights that she may be new money or trying hard to show that she has the moolah. She is also a fashion victim, which can suppose a neurotic personality and a ruthless one at that too. Or, it can show a woman who is not self-assured at all and wants to fit in desperately, but awkward and trying too hard, manages to compromise all her chances.

A few details here have helped to present a different picture at every single example. Yet, we started with the same woman and the same suit.

You 'show', and it's this 'showing' that 'tells' your reader what you want to convey.

There you are - 'show, not tell'. I'd love to hear your comments, and if this article was helpful.

Got a question for Agony Zee? Drop her a line at with your concern/issue/dilemma.

Zee Monodee
Author of stories about love, life, relationships... in a melting-pot of cultures

Zee is an author who grew up on a fence - on one side there was modernity and the global world, on the other there was culture and traditions. Putting up with the culture for half of her life, one day she decided she'd stand tall on her wall and dip toes every now and then into both sides of her non-conventional upbringing.
From this resolution spanned a world of adaptation and learning to live on said wall. The realization also came that many other young women of the world were on their own fence.
This particular position became her favourite when she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of writing - her heroines all sit 'on a fence', whether cultural or societal, in today's world or in times past.

Hailing from the multicultural island of Mauritius, Zee has been writing for close to a decade and has had 3 novels published so far (under other pen names). After a stint in the publishing industry, on the 'other side of the fence' as an editor, her goal today is to pen wholesome, fulfilling stories and help fellow authors, whether as critique partner or as freelance editor.

Find out more about her by checking her blog


Joann said...

I started fanning when I got to the man made of 70% dark Lindt chocolate--and I don't even like chocolate! lol Great way to show him off though.

Lynn Spangler said...


Excellent advice. Your examples were wonderful. Funny how I'm hungry for chocolate now.

Great post, Zee.

Zee Monodee said...

Lol, I knew the chocolate would be a winner! 70% Dark Lindt Choc is actually the description of my hero in an upcoming story, a Swedish-born shipping tycoon. :)

Lynn - glad you liked the examples. They say a picture is worth a thousand words: thank goodness we need less than that to create an evocative image in our prose!

Hugs to you both, & thanks for dropping by!

Sandy said...

A very good article, Zee. I'm always wondering if I'm telling or showing. This helped to clarify it for me. Smile.

Chicki said...

Great post, Zee! As you know, I often have difficulty with showing instead of telling. I've printed this out to put into my work-in-progress binder so I can refer to it when I'm writing.

Zee Monodee said...

Glad if it helped, Sandy! It's not always easy to grasp when one is telling and not showing. I often find myself adding the 'showing' text on my first revision, because finishing the draft often gives me a better grip on the characters and how they relate to themes and the story. At that stage, I can pause and ponder more on the basic sentences I threw down in the first draft.

Thanks for commenting. Hugs!

Zee Monodee said...

Wow, Chicki - I'm glad if my article could be so helpful! Like I just told Sandy, showing and not telling is tricky and often needs a very pointed look, editor-style, at the first draft to grasp where the prose can benefit from more imagery.

Thanks for coming by & commenting. Hugs!

Sheri Fredricks said...

Hi Zee! Sometimes I over do it and it comes out sticky as corn syrup. I get paranoid that I'm not showing enough, then boomerang back to wondering if I've gone too far. Thank God for crit partners who spank me into place. I love the descriptions in your post.

Brenda said...

Fabulous post Zee. Yep show and tell. It's hard to get the balance between the two just right. We have to learn what to show and what works better as tell.
Your examples were great!!!

Zee Monodee said...

Sheri, lol at the 'sticky as corn syrup' description! Yes, there is something called overkill in showing (Tolkien, anyone?). That's a big feature of literature, imo, the extra-lyrical prose and flowery imagery.
Thank goodness for crit partners, yeah! And glad you liked the descriptions. :)


Zee Monodee said...

Hey Brenda
You're right - we can't just show all the time, a little bit of tell is needed too.
Plus the rule of 'tell, don't show' applies to writing the synopsis, so we have to handle that as well. All a question of balance, in the end.
Glad you liked the examples too! I hoped they'd do the trick to illustrate the concept. :)


desitheblonde said...

well the way yo put it was just right and the choc well ever one crave it some times

Zee Monodee said...


Thanks for the comment! Glad if the examples could help and provide a good picture of the concept. :)

which reminds me... I haven't had choc in ages! Lol

Cheers & hugs