Show Vs. Tell, by Maria V. Snyder

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A common writing mistake is to tell the reader the events of a story or tell the reader how a character is feeling. Journalism is an acceptable method of telling, of presenting the facts, but fiction creates the illusion of being there in the story, seeing events happen without the writer telling you.

For example:

Valek was angry. (Telling)

"Valek took a gray rock off his desk and hurled it toward me. Stunned, I froze as the stone whizzed past and exploded on the wall behind me." (Showing)

There are five techniques a fiction writer can use to avoid telling the reader:

  1. Using Point of View (POV)
  2. Using dialogue
  3. Using all the senses
  4. Using picture nouns and action verbs
  5. Writing in scenes


POV is the character who is relating the story. The readers see your fictional world through this character's eyes. Usually the POV character is the main protagonist, but not always (The Sherlock Holmes mysteries are told from Dr. Watson's viewpoint).

There are many different POVs:
1. First person - The POV character tells the story as "I." Strong reader identification with POV character. Readers discover story events as character does. Remember - POV character must be present at all main story events. Example:

"I averted my eyes from the flickering light as they led me down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffed in my face. My bare feet shuffled through puddles of unidentifiable muck."
POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder

2. Second person - The POV character is referred to as "You." Demands reader identification, technically challenging. Example:

"You avert your eyes from the flickering light as you are led down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffs in your face. Your bare feet shuffle through puddles of unidentifiable muck."

3. Limited third person - A single POV character is referred to as "he" or "she." Allows writer to get out of the POV character's head and tell the story. Provides some distance from POV character while still fostering strong identification.

Example: "Yelena averted her eyes from the flickering light as she was led down the main corridor of the dungeon. Thick, rancid air puffed in her face. Her bare feet shuffled through puddles of unidentifiable muck."

4. Multiple third person - Multiple POV characters, each referred to as "he" or "she." Flexibility in covering spatial and temporal events. Less reader confusion when one POV character is used per chapter. Same writing style as limited third, but the writer is not restricted to one character's thoughts and actions.

5. Omniscient - No single character, jumps from POV to POV, with authorial comment. Freedom to make major points without too much reader identification with primary characters. Example:

"Sam had a very sharp sense of clothes style - quite as sharp as a "mod" of the 1960's; and he spent most of his wages on keeping in fashion. And he showed another mark of this new class in his struggle to command the language.

By 1870 Sam Weller's famous inability to pronounce v except as w, the centuries-old mark of the common Londoner, was as much despised by the "snobs" as by the bourgeois novelists who continued for some time, and quite inaccurately, to put it into the dialogue of their cockney characters."
The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles


Dialogue is fast paced, it's easy and entertaining to read, it advances the plot and shows characterization, and it involves the reader. We all like to eavesdrop on conversations (if you're a writer it's practically a job requirement!). Dialogue is also a great way to "show" what is happening in your story.


Valek poisoned Yelena's drink with Butterfly's Dust. (Telling)

"While we're waiting, I though maybe you could use a drink." Valek handed me a tall pewter goblet filled with an amber liquid. Raising his own goblet, he made a toast. "To Yelena, our newest food taster. May you last longer that your predecessor."

My goblet stopped short of my lips.

"Relax," he said, "it's a standard toast."

I took a long swig. For a moment, I thought my stomach was going to rebel. This was the first time I drank something other than water.

"What does it taste like?" Valek asked.

"Peaches sweetened with honey."

"Good. Take another sip. This time roll the liquid around your tongue."

I complied and was surprised by the faint citrus flavor. "Orange?"

"That's right. Now gargle it."

"Gargle?" I asked. He nodded. Feeling foolish, I gargled the rest of my drink and almost spat it out. "Rotten oranges!"

He laughed. "Correct." He opened my folder and picked up his pen. "You just had your first lesson in food tasting. Your drink was laced with a poison called Butterfly's Dust. The only way to detect Butterfly's Dust in a liquid is to gargle it. That rotten orange flavor you tasted was the poison." (Showing)

POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder


Don't just use visual imagery for description. In addition to colors, sizes, and shapes, use smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. Smells can be very effective in provoking a response in your reader. Example:

"I selected four squares. They were each about the size of my thumbnail. If I hadn't been told they were a dessert, I probably would have guessed they were pieces of brown candle wax. My fingernail left an impression on the top, and my fingertips felt slightly greasy after handling them.

I bit into the hard cube, expecting it to turn to powder between my teeth. Thinking wax, I anticipated tasting wax. Instead of crumbling, the dessert melted and coated my tongue was a cascade of flavor. Sweet, bitter, nutty and fruity tastes followed each other. Just when I though I could say it was one of them, I would taste them all again."
POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder


Use specific, concrete nouns instead of vague ones like happiness, kindness, arrogance, and courage. Instead show characters being happy, kind, arrogant, and courageous. Also use the most vivid, active verbs, and avoid the passive or linking verbs. Limit modifiers. Examples:

There was a robot working behind the counter. (Telling)

A glittering, magnificent, and spectacular robot was working behind the vast, shiny, smooth counter. (Modifier overload! and passive voice)

An X-14 Postal Robot sorted envelopes behind the customer service desk. (Showing)

Passive Voice: The car was speeding down the road.
Active Voice: The car raced down the road.

Passive: The report was read by Karen.
Active: Karen read the report.

Passive: The crash was witnessed by a pedestrian.
Active: A pedestrian witnessed the crash.


For any story length, scenes are the building blocks of the story. The word "scene" is a theater term. It describes action that occurs in a single place or setting. It can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter. Focus defines a scene not length. Each scene in a novel has a specific focus or reason that the author chooses to show the reader what's going on at that time.
Here are some reasons to use the scene:
- to give information to further the plot of story
- to show conflict between characters by using dialogue and action
- to show a particular character by focusing on how he/she deals with a situation
- to create suspense.

The beginning of a scene should hook the reader and make him/her want to keep reading. The ending should create some type of suspense - emotional or physical so the reader will want to continue reading.

Example of narrative:
Yelena was distracted and couldn't focus on her lessons. Maren and Janco are engaged in a rowdy duel, but her friend, Ari knew something wasn't right, so he asked her what was going on. She asked him if he thought the training was a waste of her time, and he gave her a pep talk. Yelena worked through some doubts that training was her way of avoiding the real problem. She has a small epiphany about her situation, and began to form a plan in her mind. Yelena asked Ari if he knew how to pick locks. He suggested she talk to Janco. They resume their lesson.

Example of Scene:
"Pay attention," Ari said. He jabbed me in the stomach with a wooden knife. "You're dead. That's the fourth time today. What's the matter?"

"Lack of sleep," I said. "Sorry."

Ari gestured me to the bench along the wall. We sat down and silently watched Maren and Janco, engaged in a friendly bow match on the far side of the storeroom. Janco's speed had overpowered Maren's skill, and she was on the retreat, backing into a corner.

"She's tall and thin, but she's not going to win," Janco sang. His words aimed to infuriate her -- a tactic that had worked before. Too often, Maren's anger caused her to make critical mistakes. But this time, she remained calm. She planted the end of her bow between his feet, which trapped his weapon close to his body. Then she flipped over his head, landed behind him, and grabbed him around the neck until he conceded.

My bleak mood improved a notch watching Maren use something I had taught her. The indignant expression on Janco's face was priceless. He insisted on a rematch. They launched into another rowdy duel. Ari and I remained on the bench. I think Ari sensed that I had no energy to continue our lesson.

"Something's wrong," he said quietly. "What is it?"

"I..." I stopped, unsure of my answer. Should I tell him about Valek's cold shoulder and change of heart? Or about my nightlong conversation with the ghost of the man I'd murdered? No. Instead I asked him, "Do you think this is a waste of time?" Reyad's words about procrastination had held a ring of truth. Perhaps the time I spent training was a merely a subconscious ploy to avoid solving my real problems.

"If I thought this was a waste of time, I wouldn't be here." A trace of anger colored Ari's voice. "You need this, Yelena."

"Why? I might die before I even have a chance to use it."

"As I see it, you're already good at running and hiding. It took you a week to get up the nerve to talk to Maren. And if it was up to you, she'd still be calling you Puker. You need to learn to stand and fight for what you want." Ari fidgeted with the wooden knife, spinning it around his hand.

"You hover on the edges, ready to take off if something goes wrong. But when you can knock the bow from Janco's hands, and sweep my feet out from under me, you'll be empowered." He paused briefly, and then said. "If you feel you need to spend your time on something else, then do addition to your training. Then the next time someone calls you Puker, you'll have the confidence to tell her to go to hell."

I was amazed at Ari's assessment of me. I couldn't even say if I agreed or disagreed with him, but I did know he was right about my compulsion to do something else. He didn't know what it was, but I did: find the antidote to Butterfly's Dust.

"Is that your idea of a pep talk?" I asked in a shaky voice.

"Yes. Now quit looking for an excuse to stop training, and trust me. What else do you need?"

The quiet intensity of Ari's voice caused a chill to ripple up my spine. Did he know what I was planning, or was he guessing? My intentions had always been to get the antidote and run south. Run away, run away, run away. Ari had been right about that. But running south would require me to be in top physical condition, and to have the ability to defend myself from guards. However, I had been evading one important detail: Valek.

He would follow me south, and crossing the border wouldn't make me safe from him. Even Irys's magic couldn't protect me. He would consider my recapture or my death a personal responsibility. And that was what I'd been so afraid to face. What I'd been dancing around. I'd been concentrating on training so I wouldn't have to deal with the dilemma I feared I wasn't smart enough to solve. I had to enhance my strategy, to include not only obtaining the antidote, but dealing with Valek without killing him. I doubted Ari had the solution.

"You might beat Valek with these blows." Janco puffed while blocking Maren's bow. "He'll laugh himself silly at how pathetically weak they are, giving you the perfect opening."

Maren remained silent, but increased the pace of her attack. Janco backed off.

Janco's words stirred in my mind. An odd little, long-shot plan began to take shape. "Ari, can you teach me how to pick locks?"

He considered my words in silence. Finally, he said, "Janco could."


Ari smiled. "He seems harmless and happy-go-lucky, but as a boy he got into all kinds of mischief until he was trapped in a tight spot. Then he was given the choice of either joining the military or going to jail. Now he's a Captain. His biggest advantage is that no one takes him seriously, and that's exactly what he wants you to think."

"I'll try and remember that the next time he's cracking jokes and my ribs." I watched Maren beat Janco a second time.

"Best three out of five, my lady can not deny," Janco called tirelessly.

Maren shrugged. "If your ego can handle it," she replied, swiping at his feet with her bow. He jumped, athletically avoiding her attack, and lunged. The rhythmic crack of wood striking wood filled our practice room.

Ari stood, assumed a defensive stance, and somehow I found the energy to face him.
--POISON STUDY, Maria V. Snyder

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