The ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Boogie Man

Let the action show the reader what is happening. Don't just tell them about it. Readers are not blind. They can SEE your scene.

Let the action show the reader what is happening. Don’t just tell them about it. Readers are not blind. They can SEE your scene.

If you are a struggling Indie author, investing your time wisely by joining a critique group or two, you have become familiar with, and even haunted by, the “show don’t tell” boogie man. Some have attempted to address this by changing he said and she said to he murmured or she yelled. That just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Use the active voice. Show action, don’t narrate it.

For the most part, say what people do. Don’t say what is done. ‘John plowed the field’, not, ‘The field was plowed by John.’ Active phrasing keeps your prose alive and interesting.

The best way to grasp the concept is to read a passage in which the art has been perfected. I would suggest reading anything by Christine Nolfi  ( ). It is a wonderful place to start.

An example will do more to help you than any critical comments employing the show don’t tell phraseology.  Here is a sensational one:

*Mary surveyed the patriotic decorations festooned throughout the dining room, a treasure trove of Americana harking back to the restaurant’s inception during the Civil War. So many beautiful things, but they’d gone unappreciated. Diners noticed little but the glop on their plates.

Her heart sank. “There won’t be a dinner rush. After the meals Ethel Lynn made for the breakfast and lunch crowds, we won’t see a soul.”

Delia approached the picture window. “I hope the town council doesn’t burn up the phone lines scaring off our customers.” She squinted at the courthouse anchoring the north end of Liberty Square. “Then again, they have a soft spot for Miss Meg. It might stop them from passing legislation condemning this place.”

“Maybe I should ask my aunt to fire off an email.” Would long distance lobbying work?

“You should—Meg can fix anything.” The mirth on Delia’s face died as she added, “We were all sorry to see her go.”

*Reprinted by permission of the author

I should explain that I resent the journalistic habit of referring to people by their surnames. “Reis says she can’t remember when she wasn’t editing even as far back as public school.” Blech. It is disrespectful and I won’t do it. Christine has mastered the art of showing and doing it vividly. No awkward “stage directions” to break up the flow of the action. You can clearly envision this scene with little description of the room or its contents and you know precisely who is speaking.  There isn’t a “she said” to be found.

In fact, I don’t know if I encountered a he said or she said anywhere in the entire manuscript.

If you are writing this well your editor will love you, you will save a bundle on editing services, get great reviews and higher sales.

SECOND CHANCE GRILL Copyright 2012 by Christine Nolfi.

All rights reserved.

Created in digital format in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 1478342226

ISBN 13: 978-1478342229

10 thoughts on “The ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Boogie Man

  1. Well done and thank you. I am doing the last touch up on my novel and will now go back and find every “says” and see if I can improve the flow. The voice is present but I think your lession still needs to be applied. Thank you again. – John

  2. Pingback: The ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Boogie Man « Yvonne Hertzberger

  3. Very interesting and very helpful, Wendy. And very true and not always easy to do! The reminder is good! Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks Jacqueline. Most of us were originally taught that he said/she said was just dandy, but I think action flicks changed things forever. We want to see it now. There is still room for narration, we cannot eliminate it, but a visual in our mind’s eye of the character ’emoting’ has impact.

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