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chumps said:

Thank you so much for the detailed examples and depth of the article. I’ve never really noticed the differences before but now I see how … lacking my writing was before. You’ve saved my life.

Ilhan Kucukaydin said:

Thank you very much. It is very helpful. I struggle with this concept within poetry. It may sound naive but do you know any resources specific to poetry…

Thanks for your comment. I do in fact have a few handouts on writing poetry.

Probably the best advice I can give an aspiring poet is to be concrete and specific. Rather than writing a poem about “love” or “happiness” (or “fear” or “angst”), write about *one particular morning* when a person you loved looked at you and said *a specific thing*. Avoid *telling* your reader what emotions he/she is supposed to feel… just choose specific details that will create that emotion in the reader.

Good luck!

Ilhan Kucukaydin said:

Thank you very much!

Sarah said:

Thanks a lot, I am entering into the world of original writing after writing fanfiction for ages and this helped me a lot.

Susan said:

Your site rocks – what a pleasure, and what a find.
Susie, Seattle

tessa said:

I agree – this may just have saved my life! Or at the very least be the difference between success and failure. Today I received a lovely rejection letter that said if I learn to show and not tell, my manuscript would be publishable :) so now I am learning and thanks to you I understand. Kia Ora!

Tessa, when you get a rejection letter that actually gives a reason and makes a suggestion, that’s much better than getting nothing. Good luck on the revision.

This advise is amazing! There’s no other way to say it, it’s simply stunning; I’ve never read an explanation for ‘showing not telling’ as compelling and understandable as this. I know I should be “showing” my reaction instead of just writing it* (:P) but umm… I’ll leave that to when I get writing. A very engaging guide, it really makes me want to get up and have a try. Thank you so much‼

*oh wat the heck, i’ll have a brief try.
I was sitting at my computer, watching the cursor blink on a blank screen, vast white sheets like the antarctic, so cold…
Story! Story!
“How can I write an effective short story” I thought, “I mean my teacher always said ‘show dont tell’, ill look that up…”
I came across this website and I stop clicking; no mroe new tabs, no more pen twiddling, just reading. What is this? An article that’s interesting AND actually gives me specific examples? Gosh, it all looks so…do-able! I sit up in my chair, throw the cat aside and type in a furious frenzy…

ah i’ve lost it. ok um i obviously need some practise, but again thanks very much for writing this, I know I’ll be referring to it repeatedly for years to come and be passing it down to fellow students or tutees; if I ever get round to writing my short story about Martians I’ll post a link to it on here if I remember.
All the best! Keep writing helpful articles like this; you’re a lifesaver for English :D

p.s. soz for the triple post, but the website said my post hadn’t been submitted and I didn’t realise that it had. If you can/want to delete the first one and this one..yeah…
anyways thanks again (ps i used your tip for poetry; writing about a specific story instead of just about “love” or “heartbreak”, though I know that example’s not the best but I’ll be trying to be more “concrete” in future; until reading this article I never realised you could describe something concrete without losing the the abstract of ‘just saying it’ if you wrote well enough. I’ll endeavour to try more soon. Thanks again!

No problem, Hayden, I just deleted your duplicate posts. It happens all the time.

Note that if you want to communicate a fact, like “Close cover before striking,” it’s probably best to tell; but if you want to convey an emotion or persuade someone on a deeper level, then you’ll be better off showing carefully selected details.

I see… Yes I think there are situations where telling is more effective than showing…
I did end up writing that short story, probably not showing as much as I could have, but I may as well post it here since I promised I would ;) (it’s the last link in the URL in my name)
(note: the short story is an appropriation of War of the Worlds, so may be quite confusing for those who haven’t read it)
Anyway, thank you very much for this article yet again; I will continue re-reading and recommending it for years to come.

Jewell Washington said:

THANK YOU SOOOO much for this article. I’m in the process of writing my first african-american contemp romance novel,errrr well I can’t seem to make it past the first chapter. I know my flaw is telling instead of showing & this article helps immensely, thank u! Any advice on how we can practice on learning how to just dive into our writing, but actively using showing vs.telling correctly? I guess the obvious would be to just WRITE, but i always seem to write 5pgs and get stuck…any specific exercises we can work on?

Thanks again!

I don’t have any special tricks, Jewell. Just give yourself a deadline and write. Or if one project should stall, switch to another.

Michelle Turner said:

I love this part of the lesson:”Showing” involves more than a long list of adjectives.” That sums up showing vs. telling in one. I also checked out a website or two, and the poem handouts were nice.

Henry M. Harris said:

I’m a retired NASA scientist who’s trying to be a writer. Here’s the thing. I want to write stories that take place in the future but are not science fiction. Nora Roberts is a good example. She’s wildly successful with works that assume future technology, but nobody would brand her works as science fiction.

Easier said than done as it turns out. I can describe a trip to the moon as it would be done in twenty years fairly accurately, but the mechanics of it tend to swamp the “showing” part of it if I’m going to be at all realistic. We’ve all seen these cornball sci-fi movies where everyone has some kind of emotional angst just to keep the story centered on the people. Highly trained people don’t really act that way. Roberts solves this problem by making her heroine a detective who deals with people and their problems.

When my story is about people dealing with their lives the narrative works, but when I describe the adventure of spaceflight, it starts to sound like a NASA manual. I’d appreciate any thoughts.

You’re dealing with what science-fiction and fantasy authors call world-building. There are whole books and college writing courses devoted to the concept.

Some readers expect a big chunk of the story to deal with presenting the world, while other readers will think of that as a distraction (or at least the MacGuffin that gets the story going).

Yes, having the narrator be an outsider who needs to be introduced to the world — Harry Potter is new to the Wizarding world, Luke is new to the Force — is one solution.

Is your goal to educate, using a story as a tool; or is your goal to tell a story, using the sci-fi as a hook to interest the reader?

Henry M. Harris said:

Thanks for the reply. My goal is to be entertaining to as wide an audience as possible. What I’m attempting to do is draw people in with stories full of danger and intrigue using plausible scenarios based on my real-world knowledge of spaceflight and the politics of it. In some ways they’re similar to what we used to call “westerns” in that they’re about people living a dangerous frontier life combined with the usual failings of humans including political double-dealings.

As far as “world-building” is concerned, I’m just using the engine of change that is already in motion. For example, nations of the world are already realizing that human spaceflight is an absolute necessity to be competitive because of resources that can’t easily be found on Earth. I don’t think I’m really writing science fiction in the traditional sense. Let’s face it; to people living not so long ago, modern life is science fiction. It’s all a matter of viewpoint.

I have no interest in “educating” the public, but I do want to create an air of plausibility using my knowledge of what humanity will likely be facing in the near future. No marauding aliens, just the scariest villain of all. Us.

Sounds like you’re writing a Tom Clancy-style techno thriller (The Hunt for Red October and the like). Even if the world you are building is based on reality, you’ll still have to construct it for your reader, and that means choosing how much to make explicit and how much to leave for the reader to figure out. (My son, who loves long technical explanations, is reading Ray Bradbury now; I had to teach him not to expect detailed descriptions of the technology, since we read Bradbury for the human stories, not the gadgets.)

Henry M. Harris said:

When I was a boy I also liked the long technical explanations in sci-fi. That’s probably why I became a scientist. But as a writer I have different objectives. I think you’re pretty close to what my goals are, with one caveat. Clancy’s works are militaristic sagas. I want my work to be more than that, a peek into a future that has infinite possibilities, if we can only contain the corruption that springs all too easily from the breast of man.

brad neal clark said:

Busy blue eyes, like busy brown bees, devour the words like honey from the hives. Dumb ticking, flicking pupils and irises travel from the left to the right, then (spacebar, return) down left and across to the right again. My typewriter eyes still see nothing of show-no-tell technique: Alas! God never molded my moist, pudgy fingertips to type stories . . . As a slave I’ll labor the rest of my days; at McDonald’s, no, Wendy’s! in hamburger haze!
P.S.-Read “The Jar” by Ray Friggin’ Bradbury!(PLEASE!!!)
BNC (aspiring “show-er”)

Double PS-great article here! It helped me alot!

I agree with that as well – this may just have saved my life! Or at the very least be the difference between success and failure. Today I received a lovely rejection letter that said if I learn to show and not tell, my manuscript would be publishable :) so now I am learning and thanks to you I understand.!

daniel said:

Chapter 1
The cursed night

It was a cold December night in New York City. I would say it was close to 10 o’clock at night. I had just gotten off work and was on my way home when this person ran into me. Hey, man watch it I said! The person just turned toward me as if he had done nothing wrong. That was when I knew that something was seriously wrong. As I looked at him, I noticed that things were very wrong about his appearance. For one thing the man’s iris were red. It scared the shit out of me. No, I told myself. I must be imagining things. This person’s eyes was not red it has to be contacts. I thought. However, I still could not shake the feeling that that was something off about him. Hey, I know just what to do to break the ice. I thought “Hey man nice contacts,” I said. Where did you get them I asked? He just stood there as if I had not spoken to him. So I tried again thinking that maybe he was hard of hearing. Hey…. that was the only word I got out before he lunged at me… GET OFF ME. I yelled. I tried to get the man off me. However, he held on with so much strength that was not natural for a human. I felt something sharp pierce the skin on my neck. “I didn’t see a knife when he lunged at me I thought.” When did he pull the knife out? I screamed out in pain. He Shortly After stabbed me I passed out. When I came to my head was hurting and so was the rest of my body. It was as if I
i need your help plz tell me what im doing wrong

What I see here is an action scene, rather than a story about a person I care about who has to endure struggles in order to grow. See this handout on crisis vs. conflict.

daniel said:

ok so how would i go about fixing that?

See this handout on writing short stories (and the comments at the bottom, too).

daniel said:

ok beware i rewrote this so it going to be different from the last one but tell me waht you all think.

Hey, my name is Michael Handon. I am 23 years old. I live in New York. Just last year I was like you. Working a dead end job. Just trying to provide for my wife and two kids. Like any honest human dad would. However, the events that take place on December 19th 2008 changed my life forever. These events took all that I care about away from me. What happened you ask? Well for me to answer that ill have to take you back to the day when I all began.

Chapter 1

It was December 19th, 2008 it was a cold night much like this one I remember because. I had just gotten off work and was walking home. You see I live not too far, from where I work but never mind about that. As I walked, I thought about how I was going to tell my wife about me not getting the pay raze. When this man bumped into me. “Hey, watch where going pal.” The man didn’t even try to apologize for what he had done. Instead, he just looked at me with an innocent look on his face as though he had done nothing wrong. I looked at the man taking in his appearance for the first time. It was then I noticed the eerie feeling that I had about this man. Everything about this man screamed predator. From his strangely pointed fingernails to his red eyes. My instincts told me that this man wasn’t safe to be around and that I had to get away. “I need to calm down this man not that bad he just forgot to clip his nails and he has contacts in that’s all. I told myself.” This person is really starting to get on my nerves the least he could do is apologize for bumping into me. I thought. Hey, man the least you could do is say you’re sorry. I said. He just stood there as if I hadn’t even spoken to him. “This person is ignoring me I though or maybe he just doesn’t care what I think. Now stop think that way maybe he just didn’t hear me…or maybe he did and he just trying to piss me off I thought”. Hey was the only word that I got out before the man lunged at me. I fell to the ground trying to fight the man off me but he had one hell of a grip. Get off me. What the hells wrong with you I yelled. But he didn’t let go or speak. I tried to shove him off but it was as if I was fighting a brick wall. Nothing I did worked. What is this man I wondered? With every movement, it seemed as if the man head got closer to my neck until it could get no closer. Just like that, he bites me. I screamed out in pain. With this bite came the feeling of pain. The pain I had felt in the past was nothing compared to this. It felt as if my veins had a million shards’ of glass flowing though it. It was too much for me to handle. I ended up blacking out. When I came to, I thought I was blind. Because the room at least I thought it was a room was pitch black. “Oh, god what happened to me how did I get here will I ever see my family again? Better quest am I going to die here I wondered”? I was so caught up in my thoughts. That I hadn’t realized that someone was coming into the room until it was too late for me to pretend to still be knocked out. It didn’t matter now I had to do something and I had to do it quick. The first thought that crossed though my mind was get up fight get out of here. I stood up and waited for the person to come though the door. I wasn’t prepared for the thing the entered the room. It was a woman I tried to hide myself from this woman but my attempts were in vain. Because she saw me even though the darkness. As soon as she spotted me, she froze. There we were standing dumbfounded in the center old the room neither of us said a word for a long. The woman was the one who broke the silence when she spoke. Who are you she asked? I am Michael Handon I answered in a husky voice. Well Michael, i’m christy. Now you wont to tell me what are you doing in my cellar she asked? Umm that is a vary good question I said. One that I have no answer to because I don’t even know how I got here let alone what I supposed to be doing I said. All I remember is walking home for work on December 19th when I ran into this freaky looking dude well actually he ran in to be but he whatever it doesn’t matter anyway he ended up lunging at me and he bite me. Soon after I blacked out and when I came to, I was here, I don’t know why the man didn’t kill me. All I know is that I’m blessed to be alive. I have to get out of here and check on my family I said. No uh you just got injured stay here ill take care of everything don’t worry. I just need to know a few things like if you have a phone and if so what the number. And your address just in case I have to make a house visit. Um uh, I think I should be the one to tell them where I am and that i’m all right. Which reminds me where exactly am I? It depends where are you from. What do you mean it depends on where i’m from I asked? Just as it sounds where are you from? New York I answered. Well Michael, lets just say your no lounger in the U.S. the woman said. WHAT I asked? Well you see…what happened…umm… Damn it i’m going to kill him for dumping you on me she snapped. umm… What the hell, are you talking about I asked? My brother…… Maybe telling you about him isn’t the best thing to do right now. What about your brother I asked completely ignoring what she said. Umm I really shouldn’t tell you but what the hell you have the right to know…he’s…well He…uh um he was the guy you ran in to in the ally…Woa what …you …got …but …shouldn’t he… you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. No im not she said. Why the didn’t you tell me all this while I was telling you what happened I asked? Hey just be glad that I told you at all she replied. Beside wouldn’t have agree to stay if I had told you that it was my brother that did this to you she stated. Now would you she asked? No, I wouldn’t and I won’t so im leaving. I started towards the door that the woman came into. No you can’t she said. Why not I asked huh I asked? Well… I can’t …damn it. Alright I tell you but I doing this can get me into so much trouble. Just get on with it I snapped. Ok listen because im not going to stay this twice. That night that you where jumped by my brother he bite you right? Ya I answered. Some how during the process is blood merged with yours and now your one of us she stated. What exactly is that I asked? Well…you see… oh I get it not allowed to say what you are right I asked? Right, you see what I just told it will get me into trouble but not as much as if I were to tell our secret to a mere human. What that supposed to mean I asked ? fine ill tell you but you mustn’t tell my brother that I told you got it she asked? Yea I got I answered. Ok well umm…how am I going to put this so you don’t think i’m completely off my rocker. Damn it why do people make this so hard for us?? Vampire. What about them I asked? That what we are she replied. Yea right and I king tut. Actually, you are related to him. At that point my mouth just dropped. Your kidding I laughed….right I asked? Sorry but no i’m not by the way the night when you where attacked by my brother you…………umm……….you were…..uhh…….you were turned into one of us christy said. WHAT? When were you planning on telling me this? I just told you didn’t I christy asked? Well yes, but that something you should bring up when I first woke up. Not wait until I’m about to leave then tell me I snapped. Well would you rather me tell you now or not at all and just let you go off and get your self killed christy asked? Why would I get myself killed I asked. Michael do you know anything about vampires christy asked? No not really I murmured. Grate not only do I have to teach how to live but I have to teach you the history of vampire. How the hell did you manage not to be taken out by a vampire she asked? I stayed inside most of my life I stated. Well that explains a lot christy said. Can I go yet I asked? No, you cant christy snapped. Why the hell not I asked. “This shit is starting to piss me off I thought”. Because if you go out with out the proper training then you will end up killing people witch will bring the vampire presence out to the public. I can deal with that just as long as I have my family with me I thought. Ya well how is that my problem I asked? Because as soon as the humans find out that we vampire exist they will hunt us down until there is no more left.

daniel said:

i have a question how would i go about making a passive sentence?

daniel said:

here is another question how is this a passive sentance?
fine whenI am done changing I am getting out of here, I said harshly!

There are no passive verbs in your sample.

Brian said:

Can you do a show not tell for the girl was pretty?



Well, what about the girl is pretty?

Who is the person looking at the girl, and what is it about the girl that this person finds attractive? A vampire would be looking at her neck, an intellectual would note the book she’s reading, etc. Does she know someone’s looking at her? How does she respond? Does she primp and pose, or hide shyly, or just look confused (“Is he staring at *me*?”)

Brad Neal Clark said:

Hello Everybody,
I began trying to read Daniel’s prose, but halfway into the second sentence or so it got to be very boring. The paragraph looked like an extremely long thing. Like a big whale. And unfriendly. Danny, please don’t take offense at this. I am only trying to help you. Sometimes I am too honest for any good. I’m sorry, though. It was immediately boring. It still felt like you were telling me the story and not showing it to me.
Also, you need to proofread your writing for grammatical errors, too. In the very first line of your first chapter’s dialogue you made a mistake and left out a word. This already makes me not give a shit about your story because it shows me you don’t give a shit about it, either. At least not enough to proof read it (even if this is only a blog). Writing is writing. I am a writer, but I am first a reader.
I love you, Daniel, and I’m not trying to criticize you just for the hell of it. You could probably find faults with my writing, too. That’s why I’m not going to show it to you. I’m just trying to be honest and tell you what my first impression as a reader was. Anyway, read an ass-load of Hemingway. Maybe Ray Carver, too. Maybe this will help you. Just my worthless opinion. Hey, Dan, good luck to you and I have utmost respect for you for even being a writer in the first place. There are not enough writers anymore, I think. Yo! Love you, bro! Please don’t attempt to get mad at me. By the way, I think the content of your story is very interesting. We all have interesting stories. As writers our job is only to learn how to tell our stories in a good way.
Brad Neal Clark (a natural-born asshole)

daniel said:

so how am i supposed to change that into a passive sentance?

If you’d like to move this conversation over to my page on active and passive verbs, and post a question about an example or instruction on that page that you found confusing, that would be the appropriate place to focus on this question.

daniel said:

hey Brad Neal Clark i Appreciate you being blunt with me. sometime that the only way to get your point across. i also want to thank you for letting me know that i had left out some word. Ill try to fix those things. and ill try my best to make the story that im writing more Interesting. im also going to let you all in on a little Secret. this is my frist time ever writting a story so i would love your all Comments on it. no matter good or bad. your comments helps me decide what i should do differently. so my thanks to you Brad Neal Clark for you being blunt.

Katie Rose said:

Dear Dr. Jerz,
Thank you for providing this resource. I am getting back into creative writing after a few years off and I’m feeling a bit out of practice, so this refresher is invaluable to my journey. I appreciate how illustrative your examples are. Hope your teaching is going well, thank you again.
– Katie

daniel said:

ok i think i got the hang of active and passive sentances. thank for the help.

I have to agree with that leaving out details may leave the reader w/o any further reason to continue reading. Make them feel the emotion is a great tip. Inserting some comedy as well helps them relax and you’ll become a favorite for the time being. Another commenter, by the name of Brad, offered some constructive help too and does give credence. Grammar, typos and the like turn me off like a black & white TV.

Spazz said:

This article really helped me to get started, but I still have a tendency to tell rather than show. I think. I’m still working on figuring out the difference.

For those like me who need extra help, here’s a really useful exercise: dissect something you wrote (or an excerpt from another work, though it’s better to use your own). Take each sentence or paragraph out of context and ask, “What is this showing me? What is this telling me?”

Knowing is half the battle. :)

Allie said:

Hey,if you guys could guve me feedback good or bad would be great. I think im telling more then showing,and thats what i need you guys to be the judge of. So heres a little of my writing
Does anyone else notice her? Her body was like a corpse,pale and stiff. She never looks me in the eyes anymore. God only knows what i felt when she did. Electricity pulsed through my veins and the pace of my heart quickend by just the mere thought of how she once was. She once walked with pride, and dignity. She would santer down the halls daring anyone to stop her.When I tried,she would say “Get a life”. She was the brightest woman i ever met,though id never admit it to her. All of that dimonished after the war. She lost her confidence,her passion. Its as if she died..
Does anyone else see?
Do they see the swollen circles around her eyes,or the yellow and purple bruses down her neck? No one cares about the slits on her wrists. I do. Oh how i care. She doesnt comprehend how my world would be unbearable without her presence. I turn the corner,and i see her. Shes sitting there her back to the wall.
” I cant do it anymore… it stop.”
Crimson fluid drips down into a pool at her feet. My body is frozen. It was like seeing a car come hurteling towards you and not being able to move. I ran over to her,her eyes widened with recognition when she saw me. She turned her neck,as if to hide her face.
I really want to learn how to write better,but keep in mind im only 13 so any sugestions or tips? Its all a work in progress.

Prior to finding your resources at Helium, I was able to get 88% of my students to pass the state writing test.

For the sake of that unreached 12% and the anticipated addition of blended learning in my classroom (face-to-face and virtual), I’m bringing these resources to my students.

I thank you most gratefully for sharing this knowledge. You know how hard it is to find worthy examples of key concepts!


Brad Neal Clark said:

For Allie:
Hey there, girl. Some of the only real advice I’d give to you is to keep up the good work. For a 13 year-old I’d say the writing sounded pretty darn good. And sophisticated. You’ve got some pretty good metaphors and choice of words and phrases thrown in there.
I would tell you to start entering some young writers contests and things like that, and see how well your work compares with that of some of your same-aged peers. I would think you’d have a slight advantage on them, based on what I just read.
As far as this “show-don’t-tell” business is concerned, let’s take a look at your first two sentences.
Sentence 1: Does anyone else see her?
The way you phrased this opening sentence puts the story in the present tense (like the story is happening right this very moment), while some of the other lines in the story (like the second one)are put in the past tense, which can make it a bit confusing for some readers (especially those who are fairly stupid, such as I). I see nothing wrong with your first sentence. It’s captivating, interesting, creates a question in the mind of the reader, which is always good. Keep them curious, keep them wanting more, keep them turning the pages.

Sentence 2: Her body was like a corpse, pale and stiff. Now this is not a terrible sentence, but it conflicts with the first one in that the tense is different. To keep the tense in present you would say, “Her body IS like a corpse . . .” Not WAS. And instead of TELLING that her body was like a corpse, pale and stiff, just get rid of that first part of the sentence and say, “Her body was pale and stiff.” Don’t tell me it was like a corpse and then describe what a corpse is like. Just describe her body, then let me figure it out for myself, let that image of a corpse-like body come naturally to my mind.
That is why people love to read good books, because it engages their imagination. Think of it as if you are directing a movie and pointing the camera at things. Movies don’t typically have narrators in them, unless it’s a film about a schizophrenic who has eight or nine different people babbling in her head at once.
So, just point the camera, show the key elements of the scene that is playing out before the reader. I would suggest to you–or anyone else who wants to write–to read Ray Bradbury stories, in particular, one called The Jar. He is a master at showing and not telling.
But all that aside, good job and keep writing, and we may all just be buying your books some day.


Melissa Junk said:

Thank you for providing all of the great information. This site has been very helpful, but I also get confused when I read books on creative writing or check out websites.

I am a huge reader, and always try to learn from the author’s writing style. Doing this always seems to contradict with what I learn from classes as well as these types of websites.

One of your examples is about Mary riding her bike away from the house, and how to keep the dialogue detailed with out making it pointless. Here is where I run into one of my biggest problems. I never know if I am using too much detail, or not enough. Here it says if I included Mary stopping to get air in her tire I would be using too much detail, but I feel like many of the fiction books I read would include such a detail.

How is it possible to ever write a 400 page book if you can only say, “Mary took off on her bike and didn’t look back.”?

Then I notice when you describe the setting involving the desert you give a great amount of detail. I suppose it is hard for me to follow because I feel like sometimes one minor thing can be discussed in great detail, but then something else which is just as important to the story if written with the same amount of detail would be criticized.

I hope this makes sense. I seem to be having a hard time getting across what I am trying to ask. I really appreciate you taking the time to read this, and hope you can help me to understand better so I can improve on my writing. Thank you.

Melissa, if you wanted to establish the fact that Mary is careful and methodical, then having her stop to check the air in the tires before running away from home (for example) would show that she’s serious about her choice to leave home, particularly if her backpack with food and cash was stashed in a corner of the garage, ready for her to grab. If the backpack had spider webs on it, that would be a way of showing that she’d planned this long in advance.

While it doesn’t always matter whether the bike is red or blue, you might be making a statement if you made the pink pink and the backpack a Dora the Explorer backpack, as opposed to a muddy dirtbike and an army fatigue backpack. Or maybe Mary has a pink bike AND a green army fatigue backpack, and the bike is too small for her and the backpack is too big — that would SHOW the reader that Mary is no longer a child but not yet a rugged adult.

There is no single rule that will tell you “Use three adjectives in a sentence if you want the reader to sympathize with the protagonist, but use only two adjectives if you want the reader to be uncertain about the protagonist.” That’s why you see contradicting advice — there are no hard and fast rules. I might read two stories of exactly the same length, and tell one student that the story has too many details, and the other that there aren’t enough details.

Authors tell complex stories that involve ambiguity, and they leak out clues for the reader to piece together as the story progresses. I might never say “Mary knew that, because the bike was too small for her, her childhood was over,” but I might end the story with Mary throwing the bike away, or mangling it in the attempt to run away, or passing it onto a little sister, or giving it to her little sister and encouraging the sister to run away, or putting it in the attic with plans to give it to her own daughter one day, etc. In order to do that, I’d need to introduce that other character (the sister or neighbor, or Mary’s thoughts about her future daughter), and explain how the relationship with that person changes over the course of the novel. So if I wanted to make the detail of the bike SHOW the reader something about the protagonist, I’d need to spend a lot of time carefully setting up a situation so that Mary has a good reason to want to do both X and Y with the bike, and make the reader guess a bit and think a bit about what each choice would mean.

Think of the Harry Potter series, where Rowling gave us conflicting information about Snape, so that there was a big debate in fandom over whether Snape was a hero or a villain.

Bill in Detroit said:

Good page, well-written. Although the material on this page was a little thin, the links look to be gold mines.

The ‘show’ example for Lucinda was well-written. I can almost imagine looking past her folded over sock with its bit of pink lace, up her tanned-but-skinny leg, past her scuffed knee and into her smirking eyes. I was a nerd, too, and some of my hardest blows came from girls.

But I was also a violent little twerp and I would have tripped her ‘accidentally’ and possibly fallen with my knee in her stomach in my clumsy attempt to ‘help’ her up.

You know how awkward we nerds and geeks can be … all slide rules and no social or physical skills at all.

It would have been a half-day for her and a long day for me. But worth it.

Ouch, Bill! Yes, the chess board incident is from my childhood, though there was no Lucinda.

I did long for the friendship of the smartest girl in the class, who about 30 years later contacted me on FaceBook and said that she, too, had been a huge Star Trek fan, but she never admitted it (because apparently she cared about social status). She was never mean to me, though she was crushed I beat her in the spelling bee. Apparently, when I won, I told her I would have misspelled the word that knocked her out of the competition, and that made a big impression on her (though I had no idea at the time). She wrote a class play where I somehow got cast as the Prince, and she was a peasant girl who sang for me at my royal birthday party. I still remember the tune and the lyrics.

d-dubz said:

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Sascha Cesaria said:

This article is very helpful for my college admission essay. I was browsing ‘transitions device’ through the net, and found your name out of nowhere. I tried to google it, and it brought me here. Thank You Mr. Jerz. I’ll keep on reading your site from now on, since I don’t really get to know anyone who could really help me with my English in person here in Indonesia.

Alex Work said:

A timeless tip, and your examples provide the utmost clarity. I struggled with this for a little while in my university writing. It took a while to understand that I was being more obvious about what I was trying to convey when I simply avoided blurting, “He is sad.”

I think about this type of thing often in day-to-day life when people say “That’s really funny.” If it was, you’d be laughing, not stating it!


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