Tag Archives: showing

7 Red Flags of Telling

Show, don’t tell: even in our narration, we want to show as much as we can, but sometimes we slip into a habit of telling when we could be showing. Now, these red flags of telling are all words and phrases that are red flag tellingperfectly find, but in certain uses, they distance our reader from the character and the story. If we avoid these phrases, we can deepen our character’s voice and draw the reader into the story even more!

That’s why

Bringing up the past always made her angry. That’s why George had stopped asking.

How is this telling? Here, we’re simply conveying information the reader should know, right? The voice is pretty good, right?

Somewhat, yes. No matter what we do with a memory or backstory, it’ll be on the telling end of the spectrum, but here this memory is actually a dramatic event (anger is useful for drama!). If it’s significant enough to convey to the reader, we can make it more specific and vivid to show both more about both characters.

This phrase is especially weird because there’s a tense shift: “that is why George had stopped asking.” It should be that was why, which doesn’t flow as well anyway. Bomb that sucker! We can make this better by showing in both sentences, giving an example of this woman’s reaction to show her anger, and then digging into George’s (wry) voice to bring his character to life:

FIX: The last time he’d brought up Panama, she’d slapped him. He’d learned not to ask.


Janice had to work seventy hours a week, since she needed the fifty grand for her lawyer.

How is this telling? Again, we’ve got a double whammy of telling in both clauses here, and the voice is pretty flat. I mean, if this is detective noir and Janice is the client or the victim, it might work, but the “since” is still a problem.

“Since” here tells the reader a motivation, a reason why the character is doing something. When I come across this usage, I always feel like narrator is literally delivering an aside, taking a break from depicting the story to lean over and whisper some information to me that I’ll need. It interrupts the narrative.

At the very least, this is a good opportunity to punch up the voice.

(“Since” can occasionally be a problem if it’s talking about time, but in general, “Janice had worked seventy hours a week since 1972” is fine.)

FIX: Janice pulled in seventy hours a week. Lawyers didn’t come cheap.


She needed the money because her husband robbed her blind.

How is this telling? Just like with since, this is another instance of the narrator (not the character) interrupting to talk directly to the reader and explain something. There’s almost always a way to have the character do this naturally through his/her thoughts, and that will show the character’s voice, too, making them feel more well rounded.

FIX: Wasn’t enough that her jerk of a husband had robbed her blind, no, then he’d gone and run off with her assistant.

Side note: let’s put these two together and compare:

Janice had to work seventy hours a week, since she needed the fifty grand for her lawyer. She needed the money because her husband had robbed her blind. Janice pulled in seventy hours a week. Lawyers didn’t come cheap. Wasn’t enough that her jerk of a husband had robbed her blind, no, then he’d gone and run off with her assistant.

One of those is a news report. The other is a character.

So (that)

He grabbed the shovel so (that) he could defend them.

How is this telling? This one is sneakier, but it’s once again telling the reader about the characters’ motivations and reasoning instead of showing the character’s thought process. If the character is narrating, it distances the reader from his narration. If the character in the sentence isn’t narrating, then our narrator just read the character’s mind.

But if you’re writing a telepathy book, go for it.

FIX: He grabbed the shovel. No way would those zombies get his family.


She picked up the clipboard to swat him.

How is this telling? Okay, you know what? I’ll let this one slide, if it’s the POV character telling why s/he is doing something or it’s super obvious why the nonPOV character is doing something (but, then, if it’s super obvious, do we need to say it at all?). It’s a more minor example of the same thing we’ve looked at several times.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about an objective, as in this example, unless the character is interrupted, just have the character DO the second action.

FIX: She picked up the clipboard and swatted him.


He was mad.

How is this telling? Are you seriously asking me this? This is quintessential telling instead of showing: informing the reader of a character’s emotional state. Emotions might be the trickiest thing to show instead of tell, especially if you’re trying to avoid clichés.

Was can be dangerous with more than just emotions and states, too. It rings pretty flat in description and characterization, especially when it’s repeated, and it’s a red flag for progressive tenses and sometimes passive voice. You cannot and should not eliminate “was” from your manuscript, but be careful with it!

Now, sometimes “He was mad” works as an understatement, or for a hit of humor after detailing exactly how the character knows the other person is angry.

FIX: He stared daggers at her. She could hear his teeth grinding from twenty feet away.


She felt sad.

How is this telling? Like was, this is straight up telling emotions.

FIX: Her heart collapsed in on itself like a black hole.

What’s the final verdict? You don’t have to avoid these words entirely, but as you’re editing your WIP, take a second look at these phrases to make sure you’re showing events and your character’s voice as much as you can!

“Red flags” photo by Rutger van Waveren


Don’t tell me how you feel: showing emotions

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Emotion: it's tough

The lie from the First Crusader Challenge? I don’t have any brothers: three younger sisters. When I went to college, they got a rabbit. Seriously.

The major pitfall most of us face when writing emotions is falling into the trap of telling. But to engage our readers, simply stating “she was scared” or “he was angry” isn’t going to suffice.

This is just another example of one of those old writing rules: show, don’t tell. But this time, the rule rings true. Take this example from Flogging the Quill:

The scene: Anna is beat from a long, bad day at work and now she’s spent hours at the hospital with her father, who has been unconscious for days. You want to give the reader Anna’s physical and emotional condition. This author wrote:

Anna was physically and mentally exhausted.

Sure, you get information. You have an intellectual understanding of her condition. But you have no feeling for what Anna feels like, do you? To show that Anna is physically and mentally exhausted, you could write this:

All Anna wanted to do was crawl into bed and go to sleep. But first she would cry. She didn’t think she could be calm and composed for another minute.

Here, the example relies on getting deep into the character’s thoughts. Personally, I think we should be on this level with the character a lot of the time. That level of access to the character’s thoughts and feelings draws the reader in.

Another technique is to use action (to use another FtQ example):

Telling: He stabbed the man furiously.

See how an adverb tells rather than shows?

Showing: He plunged the dagger into the man’s chest again and again and again, screaming “Die!” each time the blade stabbed into flesh.

Notice that this example doesn’t name the emotion. Can you tell what it is? Of course! Would using the word “anger” help? Probably not. In fact, it might undercut the power of the scene.

Another option is showing with the cliché, of course, but that’s hardly any better than telling. Clichés, automatic turns of phrase like “his blood boiled,” are used so often they don’t carry much meaning anymore. Even gestures can become cliché. Work harder—change it up and make it fresh instead of giving your readers something to gloss over.

Next time we’ll look at two more ways to show character emotions!

What do you think? How have you used characters’ thoughts or actions to convey their emotions?

Photo by Daniel James

A place for everything: showing vs. telling

Join one critique group and you’re sure to have someone point out an instance of telling in your writing with the admonishment: “SHOW DON’T TELL!

Now, I’m going to tell you right now: that’s quite often good advice. I’m not one for slavishly adhering to rules, but when I read a book that routinely tells me about what people are thinking rather than showing me that they’re thinking it, it drives me crazy. It’s like reading about a story rather than reading the story itself.

One common place I’ve come to focus on is showing vs. telling is in character’s emotions.

Bad telling:

She felt tired. She always felt tired. Every day, they had this meeting and she just wanted to sleep.

Better showing:

Her eyelids sagged, but Marie didn’t notice that she was falling asleep until her head began to droop. She jerked upright again with a quick glance around the boardroom. No one met her eyes—many were dozing themselves. The midafternoon stockholder report was always the most difficult time of day to focus, whether she’d gone to bed at two or ten.

But it had almost always been two.

Showing has the power to bring a reader more deeply into the story—making them live the experience rather than just read about it. Vivid details and description can do that.

BUT (and there’s almost always a but) there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, vivid descriptions and details get in the way of the story. Sometimes, telling is the way to go. (Gasp.)

I know, it’s horrific to even read. But every once in a while, something needs to be told. Good reasons to tell: the details aren’t significant, won’t add to the setting, slow down the story or get in the way of emotions.

Bad showing:

She stood among the racks of children’s clothing, but her eyes didn’t see the blue and yellow horizontal striped miniature polo shirts, or the pink polka dotted dresses with ruffled lace bloomers hanging on rack to her right. Nor the green, blue and orange plaid button downs, the purple beaded socks, the bedazzled jeans with magenta embroidery, the baby khakis with real zippers and buttoned pockets, in every size from preemie to 4T, folded on the shelves to her left.

What was her son doing now?

See the problem? Unless you’re trying to show us your POV character has an eidetic memory (300,000 word novel, anyone?), this level of detail probably isn’t necessary. In fact, showing the scene can be so time consuming that it drags on and becomes boring—and probably worst of all, it severely undercuts the emotional impact of the next line.

Better telling:

The bright colors and happy patterns of the children’s clothing department seemed to mock her pain, as if the miniaturized shirts and shorts could read her mind to see what she’d done, and taunt her for poor choices.

What was her son doing now?

In this case, we really don’t need to “see” every detail of the children’s clothes. Now, a better way to accomplish both might be for the character to actually handle the children’s clothes, noting the details (perhaps she’s a seamstress who appreciates clothing construction and patterns?), her thoughts slipping back to her son.

My favorite instance of confusion about showing and telling was prompted by a contest judge. She(?) marked the sentence “Sighing, Margaux pulled the hairpins from her hair” with “SHOW us the sigh.” (Note, too, that this was the only initial participial phrase in the chapter.) Well, okay:

Margaux’s thoracic diaphragm contracted, expanding her thoracic cavity and creating a vacuum in her lungs. Air at atmospheric pressure rushed in to fill her lungs. Once they were at optimal capacity, and a good proportion of the oxygen content had transpired into her bloodstream, Margaux reached the full depth of her frustration with her disheveled coif. She contracted her external intercostal muscles, audibly forcing a stream of air through her nostrils, and pulled the hairpins from her hair.

Clearly, sighing isn’t something that has to be shown like that. In fact, with some actions, simply using the verb is enough to show them.

Yes, yes, you’ll be told a million times “show, don’t tell” before you’re published, but really, telling has its (very limited!) place, too.

What do you think? Is there a place for telling as well as for showing? When do you use them?

Photo credits: shh!—Ann; shout—Maciek Łempicki