Monday, November 14, 2011


by Pam Smallcomb

I remember when I decided to focus on my writing, and I attended my first SCBWI Writer’s Conference. It seemed to me that at each presentation, I was given this advice:

“Show, don’t tell.”

I looked around at my fellow attendees and saw them nodding sagely. In my head I was thinking, “What in the heck are they talking about?” Since I was obviously the only one who didn’t ‘get it,’ I sat quietly and hoped to break this super-secret code on my own some day.

Eventually, I figured out that what these writers and editors were saying was that the actions of your characters should reveal their character traits and flaws (not to mention the plot itself). But how do you check for ‘telling’ in your own work? One way is to take a close look at your adverbs and adjectives, and consider each one a candidate for the old axe.

For example, the sentence “She looked at the box carefully.” doesn’t really tell you how she went about examining the box, nor does it reveal anything about her character, her emotional state, or the plot.

Instead you could write, “Her hands shook as she turned the box over and over in her lap.”

This sentence could convey nervousness, or excitement, or even fear (depending on what is in that box!).

Another way to check your own work is to keep an eye out for the verbs ‘is’ and ‘are’ (and the past tenses ‘was’ and ‘were’).

For example:
“David is charming.”

How is he charming? Does he remember everyone’s birthday? Have a smile that can melt ice cream? Perform magic tricks spontaneously? How does his particular charm manifest itself?

In other words, if I were to watch David in action, what would he do that would cause me to think of him as charming? ‘Showing’ instead of ‘telling’ is what draws your reader into your story, and makes them bond to the characters. It allows your reader to become the character.  It forces the reader to watch the characters and deduce what their actions mean. It doesn’t spell everything out the way ‘telling’ does. It’s a less passive experience all around.

An exercise that students can do to help them see the difference is to first make a list of adverbs and adjectives, then write two sentences: one ‘telling’ and one ‘showing’.

Ex. Loudly:

I watched Rosi clap loudly when Ralph won first prize.
When they announced Ralph had won, I glanced at Rosi and covered my ears.

Ex. Grumpy:

Sid was pretty grumpy when I woke him up.
Sid slammed me in the side of the head with his pillow when I woke him up.

I recently watched the BBC version of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. More importantly, I watched the characters. The actions and mannerisms of each character were unique: from the servant Flintwinch’s gruff behavior, to Amy Dorrit’s gentle and kind-hearted manner. You knew Amy Dorrit was kind-hearted not because everyone pointed to her and said, “Now there goes a kind-hearted girl!” but because Dickens shows us. He shows Amy saving part of her lunch to take back to her father in debtor’s prison. He shows her taking care of people. He doesn’t tell us to think of her as kind. We begin to think of her as kind, as we watch her actions.

When trying not to ‘tell’ your story you can remember the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”

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  1. Actions speak louder than words has a new meaning for me now. Thanks very much.

    Linda A.

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  3. Ahhhh, the bane of our writers' existence, show, don't tell! But, nonetheless, very true. Great post; I'm passing it on to a friend to read. Found you from our PiBoWriMo listing. Stop by and check out my blog if you have a chance.

  4. The examples are great connections! Thanks!!

  5. Fabulous post Pam! And perfect timing - I'm deep in the revision cave.