Show Me! Show Me!

By Cecil ("Cec") Murphey

The first major piece of advice hurled at beginning writers goes, "Show, don't tell." I prefer to say, "Whenever possible, show readers." If writers do nothing but show, their articles and books go on endlessly. The principles of show versus tell applies to nonfiction as well as fiction.

What do we mean by show? Think of this principle as presenting a picture--something readers can see if they close their eyes. Good showing also involves other senses, but it's easier to show this with the visual sense.

For example: I jogged through the San Francisco neighborhood where I live. This is something I tell you. If you can close your eyes and capture a scene, it's because you are reading something into the text that isn't there.

By contrast, here's the way James Patterson wrote it: I jogged past yelping dogs running loose, lovers on a morning walk, gray-clad, bald-headed Chinese men bickering over mah-jongg. (First to Die: Little, Brown, 2001, p.104)

Because Patterson uses two senses, we see the dogs, the lovers, the Chinese, and we hear the dogs as well as the bickering. This is good writing, because he draws a picture for us and pulls us into the San Francisco scene. In that single sentence, we are jogging alongside the protagonist and have been pulled into the story.

Here's another telling statement: Jason raged against his wife. Because rage is a strong verb, many writers assume they've shown emotion. They haven't. Here's a picture of rage: Jason grabbed Ellen's chiffon dress off the hanger and ripped it down the front. He threw it to the floor and trampled on it with his muddy boots.

In case some think the art of showing is a modern concept, here's an example from the 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. If Gustave Flaubert had been a lazy writer, he could have said, "Charles Bovary was a boring person." Here's how he shows readers:

Charles's conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, with everyone's ideas walking through in ordinary dress, arousing neither emotion, nor laughter, nor dreams. He had never been curious, he said, to go and see a touring company of Paris actors at the theatre. He couldn't swim, fence, or shoot, and once he couldn't even explain to Emma a term about horseback riding she had come across in a novel. (p.60)

Why do we need to show? Telling is like overhearing someone talk about another person. Showing is like meeting the person. Showing allows readers to draw inferences and evaluate the action, and it involves them so they are part of the scene.

If we say, "Mary had a broken leg," readers can't feel anything, but if we describe a bare bone sticking through pale skin, readers experience the pain along with the character. This is especially important in dealing with the emotional state. Don't just say a person is depressed, because readers need to see the person acting in a depressed mood. It's the adage that actions speak louder than words--especially telling words.

When done well, showing reveals character and enables readers to feel as if they are part of the event. Suppose I'm relating an incident from my high school days when I arrived five minutes late for my math class. I'm afraid of the verbal wrath of Mr. Gibson. Before I write this, however, I need to decide what information and emotion I want to convey to my readers. Notice the differences in the three examples below:

I walked into Mr. Gibson's classroom five minutes late. (This simply presents information and doesn't help readers understand my emotions.)

I raced into Mr. Gibson's classroom, desperately hoping he wouldn't see that I was five minutes late. (This enables readers to become part of the scene.)

I sneaked into Mr. Gibson's classroom as the clock ticked again. I cringed to realize that I was now six minutes late. (This also puts readers inside the my emotions.)

No matter how small the action, we describe it to the readers and don't just inform them. The example shows how much life we can add to a single sentence by changing the verb. The verb change suggests more than action--it also describes the character's state of mind.

We can add to the example above and make it an even stronger story: I sneaked into Mr. Gibson's classroom, desperately hoping he wouldn't see that I was five minutes late. My pulse raced, as I tiptoed to my desk. Just then my math book crashed to the floor and every head turned toward me. Mr. Gibson glowered.

Benefits of Showing.


• Enhances reader identification--they're transported into the action.

• provides a sense of time and place, particularly if the story is set in an unfamiliar world.

• creates suspense

• reveals relationships better than telling

• offers unique or unusual details and develops feelings of depth and reality

• hints at or reveals motives behind an action.

This doesn't mean writers fill their pages with details. Think instead of capturing an image. Ask yourself, what is the picture I want to capture?

A showing exercise. Here's something you might think about. Below is a list of common nouns. If we color in details, readers will see a vivid picture.

If I tell you that I met the wealthy financial guru, Warren Buffett and noticed his wristwatch, what picture have I captured? Nothing special, but if I comment that he wears a Timex, a Seiko, or a Rolex, I'm enlarging the picture of this person. (And, yes, it is all right to use brand names provided you spell them properly.) Try the exercise below:

Instead of Use:
a tree elms, oaks, mesquite
a soft drink
a car
a running shoe
a colored skirt

Hints for better showing. Here are a few guidelines for better showing: Tell only a fraction of what you know. Choose the detail you want to work on. Focus on where the action is or where the drama lies. Search for exciting parts that grab readers' emotions and develop a sense of identity. Help readers see and feel what you do. Select details that allow for an accurate vision and include only the details that matter--those that suggest more than they describe.

This example is overdone; Tears streamed down her face, nearly blinding her. For hours she had wailed over her loss, but no peace came to her. She clutched the letter to her breast as her piteous sobs echoed through the empty house.

Finally, here's my favorite quotation on the topic: You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.--Richard Price.

Cecil (“Cec”) Murphey has written, co-written, or ghostwritten more than 90 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His Gifted Hands, the autobiography of Dr. Ben Carson, has now sold nearly two million copies since its publication in 1990. He ghosted Franklin Graham’s autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, which won an ECPA Gold Medallion. Reader’s Digest magazine condensed I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City (Kensington) and Disney has optioned it for film as “The Mighty Bishops.” Kinetic Pictures has optioned 90 Minutes in Heaven, written for Don Piper(Revell). His recent books include When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer's (Beacon Hill) and Committed but Flawed: Finding New Ways to Grow Spiritually (AMG). You can learn more about Cec at his website located at:

© 2004 Cecil Murphey. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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