Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Let Your Reader be the Doctor: on Showing vs. Telling

I think one of the most frustrating critiques an author can receive is “you’re telling, not showing.” For the one pointing it out, it’s pretty obvious; but for the poor author who has to fix it – how?! Particularly if the telling is plot-related and not description-related.

My favorite way to think about it is to imagine that your book is the patient, and your reader is the doctor who needs to figure out what is wrong with them. When a patient walks in, they don’t say: “I have appendicitis.” They’re going to say, “My side hurts and I keep throwing up!”

How this translates into your fiction:

Don’t write: She was sad. 
Do write: She felt as if the sun would never shine again. It was a crushing, heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. 

Of course, there’s debate over whether even the “she felt” should also be avoided. In which case, you might want to consider:

A heavy, crushing feeling settled over her; tears welled in her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Etc.etc.

Let your reader diagnose what this heavy, crushing feeling is that leaves her crying - desperation? Sadness? In the context of your story, it becomes clear, just as, in the context of the person sitting in front of the doctor’s lifestyle, health history, family history, etc, the doctor will diagnose.

Of course, it just may not be possible to avoid all telling, in which case, I advise to keep it real. Your patient isn’t going to walk in and say, “I believe I have an acute hyperactive diaphragm”; they’re going to say, “I have the hiccups!”

On a larger scale, telling can seep into the direction of the plot. It leads to nasty things like predictability and frustration. Readers like to feel smart; they like to be able to say, “I knew it!” without feeling like they were told or led to that conclusion, but rather because they’re just that awesome at reading into clues. Your reader doesn’t want to feel disconnected from your characters, either, by knowing something your character doesn’t – and feeling frustrated they’re too oblivious to act on it!

So how do you avoid a telling plot?

Think backwards. You’re the doctor; what do you need your patient to tell you in order to figure out what’s wrong with them? What logical order do you need to hear these symptoms in to figure it out?

How this translates to your fiction: 

Diagnosis: Larry killed Sally because Larry was furious she slept with his brother and not him.

Symptoms: Sally is dead. Sally did not kill herself or die in an accident. Sally was raped before she died. Sally was dating Jack. The DNA isn’t Jack’s, but similar enough to show a genetic link. Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi. The police find text messages from Larry asking Sally to go out with him, which she declined. …

If you start with Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi you’re telling, because you’re answering questions out of a logical order. The reader didn’t think to ask that yet, did they? Try to think through if what you’re leading with, or what you’re developing plot-wise, is answering or revealing things that don’t need to be answered or revealed yet. And also check if what you’re revealing is a why or a what:

What: Sally is dead. Sally did not kill herself or die in an accident. Sally was raped before she died. Sally was dating Jack. The DNA isn’t Jack’s, but similar enough to show a genetic link. Jack’s brother Larry doesn’t have an alibi.
Why: The police find text messages from Larry asking Sally to go out with him, which she respectfully declined.

The WHY is really an icing on the cake, the motive behind a crime. You can certainly convict without it – just like a doctor can diagnose a patient saying “I have this weird mole” without needing to know that he or she never used sunscreen in his or her entire life. But definitely, that lack of sunscreen information could help in preventative measures…or even leading to the diagnosis, cutting the time to the diagnosis in half.

How this translate to your fiction:

Symptom: Jack never likes to be around Sally much anymore, even though they’re engaged. Jack smells like perfume Sally doesn’t wear.

Why: Jack finds Sally annoying and fell out of love with her.

Diagnosis: Jack is cheating on Sally.

Reader reaction after symptom: you IDIOT! Can’t you tell SOMETHING IS WRONG?! WHY are you still sitting there planning your wedding when there is OBVIOUSLY something wrong?!

If you reveal the why too early, the reader already knows he’s cheating on her, thinks Sally is an idiot, and maybe even starts to sympathize with Jack for dating such a dolt in the first place. Will they finish the book (i.e.: need a full list of symptoms in order to diagnose): nope.

In other words: be careful you don’t frustrate your reader with what you reveal, either, and lead them in a direction you don’t want to go. You want to root for Sally, not think she’s an idiot and just completely oblivious to the obvious. If you plot centers around Sally ignoring, for example, these obvious signs, you should sprinkle in some reason as to WHY she’s ignoring them – i.e., Sally knows she doesn’t wear that perfume, but she rations it must be his mom’s. She notices Jack isn’t around much anymore, but he just must be busy. She becomes in denial, now, instead of an idiot. 

Your whys and whats need to work together in logical order leading up to the conclusion.

Whew! Happy writing!


  1. Thanks so much for the informative post! It's exactly what I needed whilst doing revisions.

  2. I received a critique that said "stop telling us and show us" which I thought was crazy because I had no idea what he meant. Until I got an example in my next critique that showed me how to "show" instead of telling me.

    Great informative post!

  3. Really great post presented in a fresh way! Love it!


  4. Great post! Showing vs. telling is one of the hardest things for an author, especially when you have to find the right balance.

  5. Terrific post. It's a challenge to figure out when to drop in those bits of information the reader needs without revealing too much, too fast. You've given us some great ideas.

  6. What a fresh way of putting this, great post.

  7. Fantasmagoric post. It took me a long time to see "show vs. tell" and now I see it all the time in my writing and my critique partners' writing, but I lack the ability to concretely explain how to fix it.

    I'm putting this one on my "to-be-referenced" list.

  8. This is one of those things I know, but when I'm revising I find snippets all over the place where I'm telling more than showing. With first drafts, I try to not dwell too much on it so I can get the story down. My hope is to not even write the telling stuff in the first draft, but I'll probably need years to get there!

  9. Thank you for this clever post. The comparison of "show versus tell" with a patient diagnosis totally works!

  10. That is a corker. Thanks. I am taking those tips on board now as I am on a deadline. Brilliant!

  11. Thanks for helping us patients, doc!

  12. I've read so many blog posts on "showing" verse "telling" but this post is by far the most insightful and eye opening article I've read. I love this hospital analogy.

  13. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  14. A fresh perspective on showing not telling. I like it and can't wait to apply it to my writing. Thank you.

  15. Love the doctor analogy!

  16. Found this just when I needed it! In my WIP, I am revealing too much too soon!!!



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  18. Fantasmagoric post. It took me a long time to see "show vs. tell" and now I see it all the time in my writing and my critique partners' writing, but I lack the ability to concretely explain how to fix it.

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