Today is the first installment in a new series by Jeanne Marie Leach.

Read Part 2 here.

In this series, I’ll be discussing numerous ways in which new authors TELL a story, rather than SHOW it. What is the difference between showing and telling?

Here’s the simplest way I know how of explaining them.

  • Telling is: Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived a fairy princess named Anna who’d been banished by her evil step-father to remain locked in the castle tower all her remaining days.
  • Showing is: Princess Anna paced the circumference of her tower room on the cold stone floor. How could she accept this as reasonable punishment for not living up to her step-father’s standards? Did anyone else know she’d been locked away in this room? Would anyone ever find her here?

Children are told stories; adults want more. They desire to get inside the character’s head. They want to know what she’s feeling. The story must go deeper in order to keep their attention.

Among the biggest offenders of telling are adverbs that end in “ly”. Excitedly, angrily, happily, etc. This works fine when telling a story to children, but it’s not enough for adults. We want and deserve depth of emotions, depth of scenes, and depth of characters.

The goal of a fiction writer is to SHOW us just HOW excited, angry or happy the character is.

Here are some sentences that are considered TELLING.

  • Excitedly, Joan opened the tiny, black box.
  • The teenage girl stepped happily down the stairs in her prom dress.
  • The VP of Marketing angrily slammed his fist down on the table.

These sentences are okay as written. But they don’t tell us how excited or happy or angry these people really are. When removing the “ly” adverbs from the above sentences, the writer must replace them with words, phrases, or even entire sentences that SHOW us just how deep these emotions run.

Taking the above sentences and eliminating the “ly” adverbs, and then SHOWING the depth of these emotions, they might sound something like this:

  • As Joan opened the tiny, black box, her heart fluttered, and she couldn’t hold her fingers still enough to clutch the gift.
  • The teenage girl stepped down the stairs in her prom dress. For the first time in her life she felt like a princess, and she knew she’d remember this moment for the rest of her life.
  • The VP of Marketing slammed his fist down on the table.

Note that by simply eliminating ‘angrily,’ the action in the last sentence already shows us this without having to tell us, and you don’t need to do anything else to the sentence.

Next week, we’ll discuss a couple more ways you can take your writing from TELLING to SHOWING—through visualization and eliminating “cause” and “make.”