Thursday, October 10, 2013

Self-Editing #7 – WHEN to show / WHEN to tell.

We're returning to our normally schedule viewing here at STWL, but don't forget: The competition to win one of three copies of BREAKABLE ends tonight at midnight. So go add it to your Goodreads shelf, like my author page on facebook, or tweet a link to the cover reveal and include the hashtag #BreakableBook for your chance to win a signed, inscribed paperback!
Today's tip is a little more involved, but I'd encourage you, once you've finished a draft, to undertake a revision with this purely in mind:

The irony of being a fiction writer is that our goal, as authors, is to remain utterly invisible. The best way to keep the reader engaged and completely unaware of the author, is to predominantly show rather than tell.

I know we bandy that phrase around a lot, so I think it's time to demonstrate.


"We're just friends," Dani said.

Carl was sure Dani was lying to him. He imagined all the reasons she had for hiding her true feelings and felt cold.


"We're just friends," Dani said. Her eyes drifted across the room to Adam, slouched in a chair in the corner.

Carl kept his face blank, his fingers curled to fists in his pockets. Would she be honest, knowing how he felt about Adam? Or did she think he'd stop helping her if she was dating that loser?

An ice-cube of doubt settled in his stomach.

"But that uses more words!" the writers scream. Yes. It does. But which would you rather read? Which gives you a stronger sense of the characters and scene?

As a reader I'm going to contend that if your words keep me enthralled, I don't care how many of them you use.

Of course, there are moments when telling / summary are completely legitimate forms to convey the reader from one place and time to the next. Without them, every book would be a tome.

The trick is knowing WHEN you can tell, WHEN you can summarize.

The simple answer is this. Always default to show UNLESS what you're conveying doesn't change, a) the protagonists's state of mind, or, b) the protagonists state of affairs.

(Insert reader “Huh?” here).

Okay, here’s the basics of what you need to know. (I'd highly recommend reading Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer for more on this):


If your POV character went to sleep feeling anxious, spent two days in anticipation of a meeting with the Principal feeling anxious, and woke on the morning of said meeting feeling anxious, the state of mind has remained unchanged. As long as nothing has occurred to change that or the story's forward motion in that time, then merely tell the reader that time has passed.

Summarize time and emotion: "Those two days of waiting were hell, walking around with my stomach in my mouth, trying to pretend I didn't care."

CONVERSELY, if during those two days Mom or Dad asked the protagonist why they were acting weird and tried to talk about the 'issues' they'd been having at school, that's a scene that needs to be SHOWN because the protagonist's state of mind will be affected by the fear Mom or Dad is onto them.



The FBI Agent protagonist gets a call from the evidentiary team - they've found DNA. But DNA takes days to analyze, and all other leads are exhausted.

Certain his prime suspect is the man, FBI Agent sends the DNA sample for analysis, and waits. During that time he does paperwork, answers the phone, eats, sleeps, poops... but in terms of the plot development, nothing is happening. The State of Affairs remains unchanged. So tell.

Summarize time and events: "Agent Fielding slunk through the next three days dodging visits from the victim's mother, and conveniently forgetting to return his boss's calls. Roger Fandango was the murderer. He just needed those results to prove it."

CONVERSELY, if during those three days the victim's mother has a conversation with Fandago's defense lawyer who offers potential 'proof' Fandango isn't the man - show it in scene. The State of Affairs has changed.

So, are we clear not only about how to show, but also when? If, at any time, your protagonist's state of mind or the state of affairs changes, you must SHOW it. When neither of these elements is affected, feel free to tell.

Also, vividness outranks brevity. But do your best to be as brief as you can. Using specific nouns will help with that, so we’ll be covering those in the next post.

Your Turn: Have you seen effective exceptions to this rule? How did the author handle it? Why do you think it worked?


  1. I never knew editing was so hard. But I'm learning, thank you so much.

    I started my next story with my hero waiting impatiently. Now he keeps changing what he's doing, irritating his companion.... More words, but also more fun!

    So much more to learn ...

  2. I often get mired in show/tell and really like your point here about change to help break things down. Thanks!

  3. This is a great way to work out when to show or tell. Thanks for another great post, Aimee. :-)

  4. This is terrific. One of the best and clearest articles on the topic. I have sent a link to a client I am currently working with as she is just beginning to understand how and when to use narrative summary and when to create a live scene. I have been sending her links to blogs that I find helpful and this is one of the top ones so far.