Writing Tips: Showing vs. Telling-- it's all About Gravy

Introduction

The biggest mistake I find in writing, especially in early drafts, is too much telling and not enough showing. This is an affliction that affects novice and professional writer’s alike. It’s understandable. That first draft is supposed to be an unedited flurry of ideas. Most of what you write in that first draft should probably be discarded and the first thing you should look for in your initial edit are instances where you are telling, rather than showing.


Why is it important to show rather than tell?

Telling the reader something takes the joy away from your reader in figuring out what is going on. It’s also not giving the reader credit for being able to understand what’s going on or make inferences from what is happening on the page. It can be insulting to your readers’ intelligence.

More than that, telling rather than showing, is lazy writing and is uninteresting reading.

Here’s an example of a sentence that is telling the reader what is happening, not showing them:

Bill was sad and reclusive. Since Martha left, he hadn’t left the house, he just sat laid in bed all day and said her name.

That’s not terribly exciting. We’re not allowed to see Bill, we’re just told how Bill is feeling. It’s good for the reader to know how Bill is feeling, but it’s better to show the reader how Bill is feeling. Do this by showing what Bill looks like and what he is doing. This makes for more interesting prose and builds a deeper connection between the reader and the protagonist.

The example in this piece is prose, but these tips apply to any kind of writing.


That's Gravy*...


Simple. By showing :-)

Use dialogue (avoid clichés!)

Use setting (avoid clichés!)

Use characterization (avoid clichés!)

Use the basic writing skills you’ve learned. A good tip is to close your eyes and watch the scene unfold. Write down what you see. You can’t see feelings, you can only see actions, mannerisms, deeds, places, things. If you can’t see it, don’t write it down.

One way to know that you’re showing rather than telling is to ask yourself “Can I pour gravy on this?”

Write down what you see and give the reader enough credit for understanding what you’re trying to convey. If it can’t be covered in gravy, than it needs to be reworked.

Can you pour gravy on love? No. But you can pour gravy on your wife or husband. In fact, if it’s not scaldingly hot, that could be quite fun.

But I digress.

Concrete.

You can pour gravy on concrete.

Describing physical things and physical actions helps you avoid clichés and abstract language. Physical things can be smothered in gravy.

I’m repeating myself. For a reason.

As a writer, you have a pact with your reader. You’re going to write them a story, and they’re going to use their imagination and put themselves in the story.


*note, thanks to my professor, Elizabeth Knight for the gravy analogy!


Let’s look at Bill again. What's he doing? How is he feeling?


Bill tossed and turned. He ran his hand across his face, feeling the sharp prickles under his palm, enjoying the pain because it allowed him to feel something. He didn't notice the stench in the sheets. He didn't care about the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. The phone rang. The machine picked it up and Bill heard Peter's voice saying "Come on, man. It's been a while. Let's grab something to eat. You'll feel better." Bill covered his ears with the pillow and rolled over. He squinted against the sun creeping through the dusty blinds. He rolled the other direction and saw the picture of them together, just last month, at the falls. Martha stared off distantly, away from his smile. Bill grabbed the picture, screamed, and chucked the photo across the room, watching it shatter against the wall.



There you Go

That's a better draft, It shows everything that the previous sentence told. We now know how Bill is feeling by seeing how he looks and how he's acting. It's not perfect, but it's a start, and hopefully it helps you in your journey to show vs tell.

Thanks for Reading.

A free-lance writer, Honors student and Gover Prize finalist, Justin W. Price (aka, PDXKaraokeGuy) considers himself a poet first and foremost but is also a skilled short story, biographer and humor writer. His poetry collection, Digging to China, will be released February 2nd, 2013 by Sweatshoppe Publications and is currently avaialble on Amazon as well as your local bookseller.

His work will also be featured in Best New Fiction (2014 edition), and has appeared previously in the Rusty Nail, eFiction, eFiction Humor, The Crisis Chronicles, The Hellroaring Review and the Bellwether Review. He currently serves as managing editor of eHorror Magazine and the Bridge online newspaper. He previously served as the poetry and correspondence editor for The Bellwether Review.

He works as a freelance writer, editor, and ghost writer, and is working towards his Ph.D. He lives in a suburb of Portland, Oregon with his wife, Andrea, and their labradoodle, Bella

Please visit his profile page for more information. Thanks!

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Comments 31 comments

Linda BookLady profile image

Linda BookLady 2 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

I like your example, and appreciate the reminder to show rather than tell. That's something I've had problems with but my critique partner is happy to point out all my writing flaws. I'm so grateful for her help. A story heavy on "showing" definitely gives more depth and insight into the characters participating in the story.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for reading and sharing, Chris!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Jools, thanks so much for stopping by. I'm glad you found this useful!


CrisSp profile image

CrisSp 4 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

Fantastic! Voted up and useful. Glad to have stumbled upon this hub. Thanks for sharing.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Justin, great hub which is very use. The two contrasting examples you use are really good and really got your point across.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks a lot, April. I find actual examples to be the best way to learn and understand :-) I'm glad you found this useful.


April Reynolds profile image

April Reynolds 4 years ago from Arizona

Thank you Justin, this is helpful, I want to pay more attention to this, I'm can show settings, but I'm not sure how well I show feelings. Your example was excellent and helped me understand what you meant.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

JOhn, they are easy mistakes to make, especially in drafts. That's what makes revision so powerful!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for the votes and the read, terrrye!


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

This is a great hub. Yes, I have problems you've described in your article. I use the ellipses more often than I should...(there I go...). I've improved a bit since I started writing just a few years ago. However, I have to keep reminding myself to stay true to the art of good writing---easier said than done.

Great hub and very useful - voted as such

John


TToombs08 profile image

TToombs08 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

Some very interesting and useful information, Justin. :) VUM.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thank you rosemay. I was certainly trying to do that. Thank you!


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

This is excellent advice. Your second draft showed much of the feelings as well as the character of the person.

Thank you for sharing these tips


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Lord. I try to make my examples useful and practical. Thank you for stopping by and I'm glad you found this useful.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Tammy, I'm not sure I'm the master of anything, but thanks for saying so. I do take great pride in my dialogue :-) Thanks for reading and commenting!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for your input, Angela.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Aurelio, thank you for stopping by. Actually, if everyone viewed their fiction writing as a screenplay, they wouldn't have this problem. films are fortunate in that they HAVE to show rather then tell. I hope this helps! Thanks for reading and commenting


Lord De Cross profile image

Lord De Cross 4 years ago

Excellent hub PDX! We take your advice to our heart. As fiction writer, we tend to make mistakes of our own. Your explanation is resourceful and easy to follow. Thanks for the reminder Justin.

LORD


tammyswallow profile image

tammyswallow 4 years ago from North Carolina

Excellent writing tips. You are a master at dialouge. It is the best tool for expsosing a plot and character development. Thanks for the wonderful suggestions. Voting up and sharing.


Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

Excellent advice for any writer. I think this is particularly true when establishing characters. If a character is unclear and nebulous the reader is somewhat left in the dark as to why "he/she does what and when." Definitely voted this Hub up! Best/Sis


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

An excellent suggestion for fiction and especially playwriting, which is what I love to do. Many of the techniques can be used in non-fiction writing such as when creating suspense at the beginning of an article and then resolving the suspense at the end. Voting this Up and Useful.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thank yo0u, Pamela, for stopping by and commenting!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Trish, indeed. Not easy... but necessary. At least if your conscious of it, it can help.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks, Rajan. Save the dry descriptions for science textbooks... your fiction should be alive!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks so much, Eric. I'm glad you found this useful. There are a lot of authors who write about writing who aren't very good at it. One example is the book "Tell it Slant". The author's of that book aren't very good and I didn't learn a ton from the book itself, though it did have some terrific essays in it.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Audrey... it's really an easy mistake to make (telling vs showing) but can be easily revised in a rewrite, if you're looking for it!


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

This was terrific! Thank you for showing us. Awesome and up.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

Very useful

We are always told to show not tell ~ but it's not always easy :)


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

You really showed. I agree, to add spice and verve and body and character to one's writing it is very necessary to show the way. After all it makes for so much more of an interesting and exciting read.

voted up on all counts and shared my friend.


Eric Calderwood profile image

Eric Calderwood 4 years ago from USA

Thank you for "showing us" about showing with an example of good writing! I once read a book about writing written by some famous agent. It was so dry and uninteresting that it took me four months to read the first five pages, and two years to finish the book. Why did I finish it? It was a gift. I felt I had to read it since someone spent money on it for me. One of the things that the author of this writing book covered was "show don't tell." He told us all about it. Granted he showed us a few bad examples. But, in the entire writing book there were probably less than ten times that he actually showed us some good writing (and I don't remember any of those examples having been written by that author). Anyway, my rant is over. Great job! And thank you for showing us a good writing example. You are a better writer than that author was!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Nice examples of something I am so guilty of--I am starting to try some longer works of fiction and it is a struggle---

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