Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

02 Oct
Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer

Show and Tell


     Hello, it’s me, the grumpy old writing coach. Today I thought I might crush a cherished belief or two. One I particularly like says that you need to show everything your character senses. That, you’ll be told, will keep you off the stage and place the reader inside the character’s head.
     Will it? Sure. Just like sitting inside a robot. You’ll be watching the world through view-screens and reading status reports from the other senses: “S/he saw… s/he smelled… s/he felt…” And how much like the character will that make you feel?
     But suppose you could be a phantom presence, instead, standing right where the character is, seeing for yourself everything the character sees—as the character perceives it—knowing everything the character knows, thinks and wants, yet still able to be yourself and make your own evaluation of the situation? And suppose that’s happening in a way that gives the feeling that time is passing? Suddenly you’re not only able to be the character, you can do better, and advise the character on what to do next. True, they’re not going to listen. They never do. But that doesn’t matter, any more then it did when you shouted advice at the TV screen last week when you thought no one was listening. In fact, if you handle it well enough, as the writer, when the reader gives that advice it will be exactly what the character wants to do, giving the reader the feeling that their advice is being acted on.
     Cherished belief number two: Tell the reader everything the character sees, senses, smells, touches, and hears, and the reader will become the character.
     But they don’t. You can’t really become the people in the book you’re reading. You can only become a character, yourself. But isn’t that what we really want to be? You don’t want to be agent James Bond, you want his job and his life for yourself.
     So what does that mean? It means you don’t tell the reader what your character sees, you tell what, of all the things they’re sensing in that instant, they will pay attention to next. Little change. Big difference.
     Then, as a reader, you experience what the character does—from the character’s perspective in time and space—and do that before the character does, so you can begin making your own decision as to the importance of events and how to respond to them. The character, and his or her reaction, will be the yardstick by which you measure your own. As a participant you’re doing something that can’t happen when you’re in that robot’s control room: You begin to create alternate, and possible solutions to the problems being posed, just as you do in your own life. Now and then you may even stop, close your eyes and daydream how the scene would go if you were living it and in control of the situation. If you can make a reader do that they’re participants, not readers. And if you do it just right they won’t have time to stop and daydream because they’re too busy experiencing the story.
     One final cherished belief to demolish today: There is no tooth fairy. Sorry.
So now on to grading your homework assignment.
     A while ago I asked you to look through your own writing and see that every single action was motivated by some stimulis. For those of you whose dog ate the homework. I’ll give you a minute to recheck.
     Here’s why it matters. Would you buy a story that said:


     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times.


     It’s a series of physical world happenings unreferenced to any human reaction other than to look, and then pay no attention. It’s motivation with no reaction. It’s reporting. Lots of people trying to be writers do exactly that.
     So let’s turn that around and show reaction with no motivation. Does it work any better?


     Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.


     This, by the way, is also typical of what we see from the new writer. So what’s wrong? We don’t know why he thinks it’s spring. The dog comes toward him but as far as we know he didn’t see or hear it before it’s reported in motion at his feet. And he thinks of days past, but why? Because of the dog? A flower? The season? No, he just does it because it’s pretty, and poetic. A reader would understand, but not be drawn in because they participated not at all.
     Of course you’ve guessed where I’m going with this, because in your life everything you do or think has its basis in some motivating event. You sense, and in response you react on a gut level. You then internalize the event, you think about it, and finally you take action. It may take an instant, or it could take an hour to complete.
     That next motivating act might be the result of your last reaction—a response to your heaving a brick into the wet cement, perhaps. It might be pang of hunger that pulls you away from what you’re doing. It can be anything, but in unbroken chain, cause and effect march through your life, as it must through the lives of every character in your story. And that’s the true difference between show and tell.


     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many.
     Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend.
     An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.


     In completion there is beauty

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.


Posted by on October 2, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach


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8 responses to “Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

  1. mavrith

    June 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks for providing these bits of writing advice. I am hoping they might help me. Especially with the show and tell dilemma.

  2. John Boyd

    November 1, 2014 at 1:31 am

    Thanks for this, Coach.
    You wrote, “when the little park know him so much better” twice, so it would seem intentional, but I don’t get it.

    • Jay Greenstein

      November 1, 2014 at 11:38 am

      Whoops…no matter how many times you edit =sigh=

      Thank you.

  3. John Boyd

    November 14, 2014 at 3:43 am

    Jay–In one of your other blogs I commented and asked if you’d let me know the 3 books you recommended to me via the Linked in FW&E page. You gave me feedback on my first chapter and I bought the Techniques of the selling writer. Now I want to check out the other two, especially the one you noted really helped you with PoV. I deleted my post to do some rewriting, so I no longer have the it to refer to.

    • Jay Greenstein

      November 14, 2014 at 7:43 am

      The other two books were Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal Motivation & Conflict. But Bickham taught with Swain, and Deb was one of his students, so they cover the same ground, for the most part. I liked Deb’s book, and favor it for a very new writer because it’s a warmer and better organized read, though both of those books have their own contributions to make.

  4. John Boyd

    November 14, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I checked them out on Amazon but am not sure if I want to duplicate Swain’s book. I get setting the scene, conflict and ending a scene in “disaster.” What I’m looking for is more on the importance of getting the reader involved through the main character’s feelings–which you pointed out was lacking in my first chapter. I took your point and I’ve read Swain’s section on this a couple of times. I kinda grasp it intellectually, but don’t connect with it on a gut level yet. Why does describing/showing a character’s emotion weigh more heavily with the reader than say describing how how the character is evading danger?
    This is what I want to read more about. Do either of the 2 books above go into this further or differently than Swain? Or can you recommend another book that does, or one of your blogs?
    Also, in your FW&E comment you mentioned, and I paraphrase: he is the only author who showed me why the PoV changed in the following …
    That intrigued me. Which of the 2 books were you referring to? Or was it yet another book?
    Thanks for taking the time to write.

    • Jay Greenstein

      November 15, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      The key is that you don’t show the character’s emotion. You make the reader experience it by being forced to see the situation as the character does, with the same imperatives and resources—which will cause them to react as the character does, and have an emotional, as against learning the details of the events. Another reason for doing it is to provide context. If you describe the action it’s informative, yes, but if we don’t know what the character is trying to accomplish with that action we’re consumers, reading a list of events. If we know the why of it, we’re interested to know if the goal is achieved. Its what separates fiction from reports. Reports talk about events that are immutable, so there’s no uncertainty, and no scene clock running. But if we place the reader in real-time, into the moment the protagonist calls, “now” the future is a crap-shoot, and more interesting.

      If we send the protagonist into that dark scary cellar a reader may shake their head and call them an idiot, because they know things will go wrong. But if we know why the protagonist feels they must go, and why they feel it’s something they can handle, we may disagree, but we will want to follow along to see how they react when things go wrong.

      Hang in there. It’s one of those points that it’s hard to get into because it goes against all the writing techniques we’ve learned, and “feels wrong.” But isn’t it how we live our own lives? From the moment we wake till we sleep, our lives are an unbroken chain of cause and effect. Can a character seem real if we don’t know what it is about the situation that is the cause, and the steps leading to their response—the effect?

      As soon as you adapt the external, synopsis approach we drop out of real time and lose cause and effect. Bang, it’s become a report. Informative, but not entertaining.

      The comment on placing effect before cause (John smiled when Becky came into the room) was in Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal Motivation & Conflict. She’s the only one I’ve seen who specifically mentions that.

      The other books I mentioned are pretty much the same thing in approach. I read Deb’s book about a year after Swain’s and it was primarily a refresher, though I enjoyed her style, and she does add a bit to the conversation, like that POV break comment. When I read Bickham’s work it’s like reading Swain’s. That make sense as they taught the same courses in the same university for many years. Bickham’s being more recent is the more likely of the two to be found in the library, though.

      • John Boyd

        November 15, 2014 at 5:53 pm

        Your comments are helpful. Much appreciated. As a freelance journalist of 25 years or more, it’s hard to change that mindset, but what you say here is spur to do so.


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