Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blast From The Past: Telling When You Think You're Showing

This post was originally posted by Valerie a few months back and it has remained one of my favorites. I've come back to it time and time again when revising and it's always helped me to spot those problem sentences.

Also, happy birthday to our beloved Jane Austen. "The most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress."


You've heard it time and time again, SHOW, DON'T TELL. If you have crit partners you've probably gone cross-eyed from reading it in your ms at one time or another. But you're past that now. You've worked hard on your prose, you're showing all over the place. Or are you?

Using internal physical reactions is a quick way to show a character's emotions. You've seen sentences like these:

My heart raced with fear.
Nervousness twisted her stomach.

These sentences seem, on the surface, that they're showing but in reality, they're telling. Why? Because it tells us what emotion the character is feeling. Fear, in the first sentence, and Nervousness in the second. Chances are, if the physical reaction is appropriate to the scene, that the naming of the emotion is simply excess information. This is sometimes called tagging your emotions and it's usually unnecessary.

In this case, that extra info creates a distance between the reader and the character. In a tense or emotional situation, the reader should be right there with the character, experiencing and connecting to everything the character feels. When something happens that causes your character's heart to pound your reader feels it, when you add in "with fear" you push your reader back a step because they're forced to process an external observation.

Think about it. When you're in the middle of a scary situation, you might notice your heart is pounding but do you actually think - hey my heart is pounding because I'm afraid? No. You just feel afraid.

I work with the rule of thumb that unless a character is experiencing an emotion that is unexpected (like, rather than fear, a character's heart pounds with excitement at being chased by an axe murderer) there's no need to name it. If you've done a good job at creating your character and revealing what makes them them to the reader, they will know what your character is feeling. And even more than that, they will feel a part of that character's experience.

Trust your reader! You don't have to explain everything to them.


  1. I think you have to balance sometimes. I kept getting comments on this one piece that I realized meant I wasn't being clear ENOUGH about what my character was feeling. And here I thought I was being all cool and "showing." The tricky part is knowing when to do what.

  2. There is a balance between showing and telling. All show isn't good, and sometimes a little telling is ok too.

  3. Guilty as charged, fooey. Sometimes, I just like the way it sounds though--like, if I didn't add the extra info it'd sound chopped off. Hmm. Will definitely have to comb through and take a magnifying-glass look at what I've done! Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Excellent reminder. I've noticed this crops up in my writing when I'm writing difficult emotional scenes and I'm getting desperate to convey the right feelings to the reader. Time to relax and trust the reader.


    - Liz

  5. This post is THE BEST! Thanks for putting it so eloquently!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  6. Yeeeep, got to keep reminding myself of this in rewrites too. :)


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