Tuesday 14 July 2009


"Show not tell" we're always being told. "Told", not shown, you notice. Well, tough - I'm going to tell you how to show not tell.

1. Go easy on the adverbs. Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

"Listen," she whispered conspiratorially.

"What?" he interrupted eagerly.

"Nothing," she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. "Listen. I ..."

His pulse quickened. "What?"

Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. "Nothing."

2. Don't just tell us what someone is like: show him doing something. If you tell me what Fred is like, I may not trust you. See, you might have judged Fred differently from me. If you tell me he is cruel and callous, I'm struggling to understand what your definition of cruel and callous might be. But if you show me him ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister's birthday card, then I'm getting the picture. Thing is, you may be the author but I am so not interested in what you think and I don't want you to mediate more than necessary - I'll make my own judgements, thanks v much.

3. Go easy on the dialogue tags. They feel clunky and repetitive when over-used. And, as with adverbitis, it's so easy to tell the reader how the speaker spoke, but harder for the writer and often more satisfying for the reader when the attitude is revealed in action. Here's an example of horrible over-use of dialogue tags:
"Do you want to come in for coffee?" she suggested.

"Is coffee all you mean?" he wondered.

"What else would I mean?" she scoffed.

"Well, just that I thought you might have some biscuits as well," he responded.

"Aye, right!" she laughed.
Think about it: do we really need any of the words outside the speech marks? We can manage perfectly well with just the speech. Or, if you don't want the dialogue to speak, literally, for itself, how about this:
Carmelle looked straight at him. "Coffee?"

"Just coffee?" He stared back, streetlight shadowing his jaw.

"As opposed to?"

"Well, biscuits. I was thinking you probably do a mean chocolate digestive." How did he manage to make the word digestive sound so desirable?

"Aye, right!"
Do I make my point? Would you like a short writing exercise? I thought you would. Imagine you are me (buy some better shoes, eat more chocolate and learn to appreciate sparkly wine and you'll be more than half way there) and imagine you are writing this blog post. But imagine that you respect the rules of copyright and therefore can't use my words. So, come up with your own examples of dialogue to illustrate my points in 1 and 3 above.

Then, ask yourself how much longer it took you to write the example of good practice than the example of crappy writing. See, not easy being a good writer, is it?

Oh, I should probably say something very important about covering letters too: in your covering letter, don't tell us how brilliant you or your book are/is. Please, please, please. If you tell me it's wonderful or that it's told in a fabulously original voice, I will immediately not believe you. Let me be the judge of your quality. You're just the writer; you're not your own reviewer. So show me how good you are and then I'll tell you how good you really are.

Often, telling not showing is perfectly acceptable. No, forget that: it's never acceptable. When it's necessary and right, it's necessary and right, and therefore perfect; when it's neither necessary or right, it's crappy. All you need do is think precisely about every word and phrase you write and analyse why you are deciding to put it there, and then your writing will be just wonderful.

"All you need to do" - so easy! Trust me, though: thinking about every word is the only way to learn to be a great writer. If you don't think about every word, your readers certainly will and then they'll tell you all about it; and the thing about readers is that they both show and tell. Ruthlessly.


Stephanie said...

Great advice!!!! In my editing phase, I usually do an 'ly' search and reword as many adverbs as possible. I think it's very easy in the first draft to use adverbs as a crutch to get the story down fast....when thoughts are spilling from our brains and our fingers can barely keep up. It's later on when we go back and enhance the little details that taking those crutches out is so important.

Natasha Solomons said...

This is such good advice. I'm going to link to it from authonomy, if you don't mind. There was a discussion over there, but you have explained so much more succinctly than I managed.

Thanks so much, you left a comment on my blog a few weeks back and I rudely didn't reply. I've been rather lost in my second book (how on god's earth did you manage to write 90??) and periodically disappear to walk around the garden and panic.

I hope Deathwatch is all going well. You are probably writing book 1000 right now...



Paige Bruce said...

"All you need do is think precisely about every word and phrase you write and analyse why you are deciding to put it there, and then your writing will be just wonderful."

I think this just about sums up any piece of writing advice out there. This is so important. Every word needs a purpose, and if it fulfills that purpose, then you can break whatever rules you want.

Good article! Thanks!

Alex said...

This is fabulous advice Nicola, and probably crystallises in a few paragraphs, several thousand pages worth of "style" books.

PS, I am a 6 foot, fifteen stone Glaswegian and people are looking at me a bit funny as I traipse about the place in sparkly red suede stilletoes as I try to imagine myself in your shoes.

I find I write more while wearing them, but that could be because I'm afraid to leave the house. Advice please?

Nicola Morgan said...

Alex - you've got the sparkly mixed up with shoes: shoes should not be sparkly; only wine should be; and diamonds. However, if they keep you in the house, that's probably a good thing. By the way, from your comment/name you could be male or female - I am a little intrigued! Not that I'm propositioning you whichever you are, you understand.

Natasha - ah, I commented, did I? Was I reasonable? Yes, of course, do link from Authonomy - I'd be honoured. Oh, and don't worry, most of those 90 were not proper books; I'd tell you how quickly I wrote them but I'd rather no one knew. Mind you, I did once write a 55,000 word one in 11 days. Including research.

Paige and Stephanie - glad you agree!

BuffySquirrel said...

I would identify "telling" rather than "showing" as one of the major reasons why I reject stories from slush. However, another reason for rejecting promising stories is that they have weak endings. I'd even say that weak endings are becoming more common.

If you could do a piece on the importance of satisfying endings, I'd love to see it! :)

Ebony McKenna. said...

Like the way you show the parents in Deathwatch sneaking in a drink whenever they can.

It does my head in when I read adverbs at the end of a sentence. As you demonstrated, they are there to tell you how you should have read the sentence. In some cases, it means having to read that sentence again.

Which makes for bad writing.

behlerblog said...

Once again, Nicola, darling, we seem to be channeling each other's thoughts/blogs. I think that Smith woman is messing about with the space/time continuum again. Wench.

N Lumiere said...

Thank you, Nicola for a muscular, action-post that just kicked my short story into sharper shape.
Nora Lumiere

Nancy Coffelt said...

I received some excellent advice: EVERY SINGLE WORD MATTERS very early on in my writing so-called career. That worked very well in my picture book revision decisions - and you know - it works with novels, too. Yay!

Wendy said...

Best post I've read ever, ever. I realize I'm telling you that rather than showing, so... tough. But at least now I know I am :D

DOT said...

Being a lover of art as well as words I think in terms of painting when I write; in other words, the fact every mark made by any artist of merit is carefully weighed and deliberate.

Cezanne, in particular, could spend hours considering a single brushstroke.

Sally Zigmond said...

I have only three things to say to you, Ms Morgan.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

And I'd love to link this to Litopia, if I may, unless that Price woman has got there before me. (It's that meddling Smith woman again and her time continuum potion.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Ebony - gah, you spotted it! Well, they do say write about what you know ...

BuffyS - I will take you up on your (difficult) challenge.

Sally - Litopia, yes, wonderful. Please do. And at the same time can you help me understand how to find my way round it? I feel thick when I visit it.

Nora, Nancy, Wendy, Dot - hooray for agreeing!

Lynn - I always agree with you. When I die, if you and La Smith just carry on talking, the world won't notice my departure.

Alex said...

Thanks again Nicola for pointing out the pitfalls of my ventures into the world of sparkliness. I think that's where I've been going wrong. The shoes are sparkly, the wine isn't and the diamonds are from QVC.

PS - I am male, and run a writers' group in Glasgow which is proving to be great fun. I'm quoting extensively from your blog and referring as many people as I possibly can, including one fellow who can't quite understand why publishers aren't falling over themselves to sign him up on the basis of his sincere promise to write something really good - "much better than that Bourne Identity rubbish" - when he's got the time.

Romelle Broas said...

I found your blog through a link someone shared over the SCBWI discussion board. SO glad I took a peak. "Showing and not telling" has always been a struggle for me. You explained it here very well. I'm listing your blog on my blog. You have such wonderful and useful tips here! Love your humor too. Thank you!