Friday, August 14, 2009


by Keith Pyeatt
One of the first axioms writers encounter when they let other writers read their work is "show don't tell." There are writing books dedicated to show don't tell. But sometimes learning can be fun. Here, let me SHOW you.
Here's my fun and light example of how writing can come alive when a writer moves in behind his characters to share their emotions instead of explaining what they feel.
Part 1 -- The telling of "Torn"
He was torn. Part of him wanted to continue on to the Land of Riches, but another part longed to stay in the safe haven of familiarity. Dangers lurked everywhere. Leaving his adventurous side behind, he returned home, safe but doomed to a life where he'd never realize the dreams that once drove him. He was but half of who he used to be--the meek half.
Part 2 -- The showing of "Torn"
The earthworm crawled over sand toward the coffee grounds the human had dumped into the garden. The smell intoxicated, and the morning breeze carried warmth from the steaming grounds that tickled across the earthworm's four-inch back.
"A little further," the head segment said. "We'd be there already if I didn't have to drag you." His words scolded, but the tail kept watch on the human. She still hovered close by, sorting through her garden implements. Couldn't the head sense the danger? Before the tail could sound a warning, a spade tore through the worm's body, slicing it in half.
The head section writhed in pain a moment then continued his journey toward the fresh coffee grounds, making better time without the reluctant tail. The tail raced to the hole from which he'd emerged, but he turned back at the entrance for a final look. The human was gone, but a sparrow had landed in the garden at the edge of the coffee grounds. The worm's head section--still a foot from his goal--gasped and dug into the soil to escape, but the sparrow's beak plucked him from the ground. The head struggled and cried out before being gulped down.
The tail section sighed and entered the hole, already aware he'd never try to make it to the Land of Riches again. What need did he have for coffee grounds now? His mouth was in the section the bird swallowed.
Paranormal thrills, real emotion
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  1. The comparison between the 2 examples says it all. Great post, Keith. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great advice. Can't tell you what a difference good showing does to a story. If only every writer knew when it was necessary and when it wasn't.

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  4. Thanks, Joylene and Karen. Yeah, it's always going to require judgement. There are things that just flat out don't need to be shown. Other scenes scream to be expanded from tell to show. But that's in my mind. Another mind might decide otherwise.

    It's all fun, isn't it? But playing around with it ourselves is often the best, if not easiest, way to determine what's right for our works.

  5. I'm never sure until I try both. Although, I should admit that if I write a scene with showing, I don't generally think to change it to telling. I wonder what that means?

    But do readers know the difference between the two:

    "Jimmy pulled clumps of hair from his head."

    "Jimmy's nerves were frayed."

    And how would Charles Dickens turn the following into showing?

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,.."

    Or would we even want him to?

  6. I think too much emphasis is placed on showing in North America. UK writers often use tell, especially in building the opening of a scene. I think it eases the reader into the story with less effort or jarring. While Americans (typically) require more inducement to turn the page than Europeans?

  7. I belong to a great writer's list where 98% of the critiques banned telling of any kind. I'm Canadian, so I've learned to adapt because chances are my book will end up in an American publishing house. But I have to agree with Anon. I don't find Canadians or Brits as strict about telling verses showing. Wonder why that is?

  8. Keith is right. You need to try both version before making up your mind. Some scenes need be shown and should be shown. Some scenes need to be telling to break up the constant action. Narration, for one, can create imtimacy between narrator and reader.

  9. Hey, all. I've read chapters I wish had been told in a paragraph. Wish I could recall an example, but sometimes the object is just to convey a bit of information. It works and furthers the story but won't be a memorable part of it. "Tell" isn't evil, it's just dry and forgettable.

    With details, show, readers form images and the message sticks better.

    I agree there's too much made out of not being able to say anywhere in a novel "he was irritable" and instead the character kick a kitten or something. It gets silly. I think the real harm in "tell" is when a great idea could be a memorable, vivid scene but instead it's washed over and forgotten as a dry paragraph of "tell."

    Hard to know when to use what. I have to play around a lot sometimes. The delete key is easy to find if it doesn't work out one way.

  10. Oh, I thought of a good example (that also lets me pitch my book hehehe). In my first draft of STRUCK, I had this one chapter that I worked and worked on. It was almost all "tell" to catch readers up on history, but man I had it groomed and streamlined.

    I read it to my critique group, and their eyes glazed.

    That one chapter is now Part 3 of STRUCK, chapters 17 through 28. It's the longest of 5 parts.

    Expanding it showed me how complex this story was, and I had to whack and whack at it to tame this beast, but expanding that section out was a great decision.

  11. Good comments, everybody. I could talk about show, don't tell for ever. Fascinating stuff. I feel bad for new writers. All this must seem so complicated. That's why it's so important to trust that inner voice.

  12. I've noticed that if you give a writer a few years to hone his craft, he'll eventually discern when tell is appropriate and when it isn't.

  13. Yes, John. Experience means everything.

  14. Yikes, I see what you mean by scary. Jeez, Keith, your story is creepy. I'm impressed. It takes a season pro to write something with this impact in so few words. I'm talking about your Showing example. Nicely done.

  15. Thanks, anon. I'm not sure how pro I am, but I feel pretty durn seasoned sometimes. Ha.


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