The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been contemplating Show v Tell, trying to offer some information about the elusive topic and trying to explain why, in fiction, showing is better than telling for the majority of your story, though both are necessary.

Now that you have the general idea about what showing is compared to what telling is, how do you know if you are telling when you should be showing? When you submit your work for publication and you get a rejection that says you have Show v Tell issues, what is it that agent or editor saw on your pages? [Most rejections from agents, editors, and publishers are generic responses to your submission. They just don’t have time to write individual rejection letters. It is a rare thing for  you to receive an actual critique, but if you get one, treasure it, and thank agent or editor or publisher for it. They spent a lot of time to figure out your story problems. This means they liked your work enough to help you as a writer.]

When agents and editors read the below words as they consider your submission for publication, they will probably do a word search. The word search will count the number of times you use these words in your story. If you use them a little, that’s okay. If you use them a lot, it’s a problem. If you use “felt” 100 times in a 300-page manuscript, you use “felt” a lot, and you are definitely telling. An agent or editor may kick back your manuscript before they read past page three. Don’t give them  that opportunity to reject your work. Note that there is no clear ratio on the use of telling words, but if it seems excessive to you, it will most likely be excessive to an agent or editor.

Do a word search [Control/Command + F] in your manuscript and look for the below words. These words are red flags.

  •         See/Saw
  •         Thought/Think
  •         Considered
  •         Heard
  •         As
  •         Knew
  •         Could see
  •         Felt/Feel/Feeling
  •         Realized
  •         Could tell
  •         Watched
  •         Pondered
  •         It was
  •         When
  •        -ly (adverbs)

As you start doing the word searches, don’t be shocked by the number of times you use each of these. It’s all part of the editing process. It’s all part of mastering your craft. As you become more comfortable with the concept, show v tell will begin to permeate your work. You will start noticing these words as you write them, and eventually, subconsciously, you will write in a way that uses more showing and less telling. And that is a good thing. Whether you intend to self-publish, or go the traditional route, search for these words and consider revising your sentences. Polish your work. Your story will be better for it.

Also look for these key phrases that are red flags:

  •         To (verb) – to drink, to run, etc.
  •         In (emotion) – in fear, in disgust, etc.
  •         With (emotion) – with relief etc.
  •         Could See
  •         The Sound of

If you can edit your sentence to show the events as they occur rather than tell the reader the event occurred, then consider revising the sentence to do that. Use a thesaurus for alternative words and phrases. There are references available that offer writers word-choice options, and they are highly recommended.

  • Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  • Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus
  • The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws
  • The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes
  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

I hope these posts have helped to explain a difficult topic. Take the time to master your craft. You are an artist. Be a good one.

Next: Reader’s Choice

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