Show, Don't Tell

Seasoned authors create scenes that SHOW the reader what’s happening with the plot and characters, rather than telling about it. Here’s an example below. Which one is more interesting, more compelling? Which one gives you better insight into the characters?

They argued. She was angry that he hadn’t seen fit to mention he’d been involved with Andrea the year before. He’d had lots of opportunities to tell her, but he’d let every one of them go.


“What? You slept with Andrea?” Jackie demanded. Her breath seemed caught somewhere between her heart and her throat.

“Look. It was a long time ago,” Rob said, rolling his eyes.

“When, exactly?”

“Last year.”

Jackie grabbed her keys and purse, but fumbled with her keys and they dropped to the floor. Tears burned at the back of her throat as she bent to pick them up. “That’s just great. You waited until now you tell me.”

It’s just a short passage, but I think you can see how much more compelling the second version is. It gives the reader a chance to see who these characters are, rather than “hearing” second-hand about them. This isn’t always about dialogue, either. You could go on with Example #2 and tell the reader that Jackie was upset and rushed out to her car, driving away from Rob’s apartment as fast as she could.

Or you could show it:

Tears blurred her vision. She tore out of her parking spot, nearly scraping the car that was parked behind her.

Here’s another example of showing. It’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine of Seducing the Governess, my April 2011 book.

The gray skies opened up and Mercy scrambled to put away Mr. Lowell’s letter before it was ruined. With all due haste, she gathered her heavy traveling cases and followed his direction, and as she rounded the curve in the road, noted that the ruts were already overflowing with muddy water from a previous rain. She stepped over and around each one as best she could, but the mud sucked at her shoes and she feared they would be ruined before she arrived.

Struggling to manage her luggage, the sudden sound of horses startled her, and she scuttled off the road just as a group of men on horseback rounded the curve at high speed and came upon her. Some of them wore the rag-tag remnants army uniforms, but none of them even noticed her cowering in the trees alongside the road. They splattered mud onto her simple brown wool coat, and as the last man rode by, he turned and caught a glance of her shocked face.

Without so much as a twitch of his thick, dark mustache, he turned back to follow the others as only a despicable barbarian would do.

With her already sour mood worsening, Mercy wiped the spray of mud from her cheek and resumed her walk, hoping she’d soon reach the turnstile. Perhaps she’d find a well where she could draw water to wash some of the mud from her clothes and face before meeting Mr. Lowell. It was unusual, to say the least, for a gentleman to be the person in charge of hiring a governess for the earl’s niece, but it had been Mercy’s only offer of employment. Unconventional or not, she desperately needed the position.

Her father had died suddenly last summer, leaving barely enough for her and Susanna to live on. Mercy had questioned her mother regarding their finances, but her only answer was that Reverend Franklin had made many investments that had gone bad. They’d lived in a borrowed cottage and relied upon the kindness of her father’s parishioners. But after Susanna’s short illness and death, it had become clear that Mercy needed to make her own way. She’d had to find employment.

She held tightly to her traveling cases and stepped back into the road, just as another horseman galloped into sight. He saw her a moment too late and his horse reared, throwing him to the muddy ground.

Somehow, Mercy managed to stay on her feet, but she gave a startled cry. As soon as the massive horse had ambled away, she collected herself and called out to him. “Are you injured, sir?”

He sat up gingerly, and when he shoved his hat off his face where it had slumped, Mercy noticed his scars. One side of his face had been injured – probably burned. A thick webbing of damaged skin marred the peak of his cheek and his brow, and clouded the eye in between. Likely he had not seen her in the road.

Mercy could not imagine what cruel fate had marred such a striking face. His nose was nicely shaped, his jaw square and strong, and slightly cleft, indicating a more potent masculinity than she’d encountered in any other man. His lips were neither too thin nor too full, but were stretched into a solemn line that indicated a fair degree of irritation.

Mercy immediately realized he was not the kind of man she ought to be alone with, not when she could feel his powerful physicality even from where she stood.

Fortunately, he did not look at her, but scowled and reached for his ankle through his highly polished Hessians. And as he did so, Mercy wondered if her conscience would allow her to slip away without further congress. Without offering her assistance.

“Aye,” he muttered. “Injured.” His tone was wry, as though such a simple mishap could hardly be called an injury. He gave an incredulous shake of his head, then tried to rotate his foot, but grimaced with discomfort.

She took a step toward him. “Sir…”

He glanced up and caught her eye. Mercy stopped in her tracks and held her tongue, doubtful that he was a man who would willingly accept assistance.

“A mild sprain, I think.”

“Oh dear.”

A muscle in his jaw tensed. “You’ll have to help me take off my boot.”

“I beg your pardon?”

His voice was stern and his words carried the tone of command. “The boot must come off now, else the swelling will prevent it coming off later. Come here.”

He glared at her with his good eye, its clear gray color going as dark with annoyance as the murky storm clouds above. “Do you plan to stand gaping at me all afternoon? I am quite certain I cannot be the only one who hopes to get out of the weather sooner rather than later.”

Mercy gave herself a mental shake. She had no business ruminating upon his beautiful, scarred face or allowing the rumble of his deep, masculine voice to resonate through her, clear to her bones. He was an overbearing boor, in spite of his pleasing features, and the sooner she was done with him, the sooner she could be on her way.

Mercy had experience in dealing with an autocratic man, for her father had been one, and more severe than most. He had never approved of her speaking her own mind. And yet her usual demure manner did not suit the current situation in the least.

“You would not be in this position had you taken more care around that curve.” Mercy nearly clapped her hand over her mouth at her rude retort. But he was not her father.

She raised her chin a notch and mentally dared him to reprimand her.

“You’re an expert at riding, then?” He did not bother to hide his sarcasm.

Mercy let out her breath when he did not retort as her father would have done. “Hardly.”

She glanced about for an optimum spot for her bags and set them down. Swallowing her misgivings, she approach the man once again. “But I know the difference between good common sense and foolhardiness.”

He made a rude noise. “Like stepping into the road in front of a galloping horse?”

“I did not hear you coming after that last bunch of ruffians…”

He waved off her words. “I haven’t got all day.” He raised his foot in her direction.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to manage on your own, sir. It is hardly proper–“

“What are you, a priggy society miss?” he said roughly, giving her the once-over with a critical gaze. “Give the boot a good heave and be quick about it.”

“I am no prig, sir.” But even as she denied it, she wondered if it were true. Was she a prig?

No. She was a well-bred lady who knew better than to dally with a handsome rogue on an isolated stretch of road.

“Then kindly give me a moment’s assistance,” he said impatiently, “and I will depart your precious piece of road.”

Mercy had never felt so awkward in her life, though she found it oddly invigorating to speak her mind for a change. After years of responding so carefully to her father and every other member of the parish, Mercy’s tongue felt surprisingly loose with this stranger.

She placed her gloved hands on the boot and pulled, ignoring the ignominious position in which she found herself. She couldn’t even imagine bending like this over Mr. Andrew Vale’s foot. He had been the perfect gentleman who’d asked her to marry him, not a wretched horseman who thought nothing of running down people in the road.

“You’ll never get it that way. Turn around,” he said.

“How am I to–“

“You’ll have to take my foot under your arm and–“

She dropped said foot and he grimaced in pain. “I’ll do no such thing.”

“You’ll barely have to touch me, I promise you.” Mercy detected a hint of amusement in his tone. He was actually enjoying this. “I’ve done this many times before. Go ahead. Turn around.”

She huffed out a harsh breath and did as she was told, gingerly taking his foot in hand once again.

She jerked the boot away while he leaned back and pulled in the opposite direction.

“You have a very fetching backside,” he said, just as the boot came off. Mercy lost her balance and took a few quick steps forward, landing in a deep puddle in her path, destroying her shoe.

Try to show more than tell in one of your own scenes. See if you can make it come to life. Don’t be afraid to toss what you’ve written. Save the old one and copy it to a new document – then play around with it.

Margo Maguire © 2011.


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