Show Don’t Tell #7

Show, don’t tell! Instead of just giving writing advice, let’s dig through some examples to learn by experience!


At seeing the small child raise her hand, she felt (1) her heart tighten with powerful emotions. (2)

“What is it?” she leaned forward,(3) wanting to ask but not actually speaking. (4)

The girl faltered and pulled her hand back down. (5)

With it, she (6) felt her heart crumble into tiny, breakable pieces.(7)

1. With most sensations and observations in a story, we don’t need the “she looked and saw” or the “she felt” parts. We can skip right to the what, and it’ll be implied/obvious that the character is experiencing these things.

2. What emotions? This is too vague to tell us anything. Also, we don’t have a sense of why this is important. Is the small child volunteering for tribute or trying to answer a math question?

3. Not a dialogue tag.

4. But the character IS speaking, and DID ask? It’s unclear whether the “she” who is leaning/wanting to ask is the narrator or the small child.

5. We can tighten this up. A lot of times, you see things like “back down” and “up to” or “forward closer”, which are both redundant and probably not even necessary.

6. Again, unclear which “she” we’re talking about. This is when proper names are useful.

7. This image doesn’t flow, and it’s cliche. And it doesn’t jive with the hand lowering (the “with it” part of the sentence implies that the movement of the girl’s hand mirrors a metaphoric movement of the narrator’s heart, but the two images aren’t consistent).


When Lacey raised her hand, Ms. Benson’s heart tightened. All year, Lacey had only raised her eyes to the chalkboard with the faintest glimmers of recognition. Never once had she raised(1) her hand.(2)

“Yes?” Benson leaned forward. Go ahead, ask. Ask anything.(3)

The room shifted with the creak of metal chairs and wooden desks.(4) Lacey’s eyes dipped from the board down to the floor. Her fingers curled into a fist, her fist lowered to her desk, and she slumped deep into her squeaking chair.(5)

As Lacey’s hand lowered, Ms. Benson’s heart sank. Another day of silence. Another moment lost.(6)

1. The raising of her eyes is now linked to the raising of her hand. This ties together the physical expressions.

2. See how we get a better sense of the stakes? It’s important not to know just what is happening, but also why we should care.

3. Getting access to Benson’s thoughts aligns her as the narrating voice instead of the confusion we had earlier. Plus, it gives us the words she wants to say but doesn’t instead of telling us she isn’t saying something.

4. Gives us location and a sensory detail.

5. Since we know this moment is important, it’s vital to spend enough time there. No, it doesn’t take a lot of actual time to lower one’s hand, but we need to spend time writing/reading these moments to get a sense of their weight and utility.

6. This gives us Benson’s sense of disappointment without outright telling us in over-flowery language.

What do YOU think? Every opinion matters! How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?


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