Miranda Kenneally

Mexican Food Cures Writer's Block

A Great Example of Showing, Not Telling

Today, I sent an email to a good friend of mine. (Said friend has a very overactive imagination, and would be a fantastic writer, but he usually sticks to hobbies like building iguana habitats, learning to play the accordion, and canning his own condiments – he recently did an exquisite spicy BBQ sauce and a tangy mustard.)

Here is the email I sent:

“Huge news – a bigwig at work just asked me to be in charge of the Washington Convention Center for the upcoming Nuclear Summit!  I’ll have a staff and will be in charge of millions of dollars of contracts… this rocks.”

This is what my friend wrote back:

Awesome news, Miranda!

I’m already imagining the summit’s Opening Extravaganza. The world’s leaders are assembled. The lights in the auditorium go down. Suddenly, there is a huge rumbling from the stage. Smoke is pouring everywhere. And then, rising up from the floor, is a giant Intercontinental Ballistic Missile! Alarms are going off, people are screaming!
A woman’s voice counts down from ten.
But the doors are locked! We’re trapped! We’re all going to die!!

Then, the woman’s voice gets to “Zero” and—–


It’s all a hoax.

The room gets quiet.

And a small blonde haired woman from Tennessee walks onto the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen and leaders of the world! Welcome to the 2010 NUCLEAR SUMMIT!!!!!!”

To recap why this email is a great example of showing, not telling:

1) You can actually see this scene in your mind – the lights go down, the stage floor is rumbling, smoke rises, a missile rises up, a woman’s voice is counting down;
2) You can feel the conflict, and you get nervous as you read this scene;
3) I liked how he seamlessly described the “small blonde woman walks onto the stage” (I love showing descriptions while showing action at the same time)’

My coworkers and I laughed for about 10 minutes straight after reading this. Showing usually makes you “feel” something. A freelance editor I work with sometimes says, “I get why your character feels this way, but because you haven’t completely set the scene for me, I’M not feeling it.”

And if your readers aren’t feeling moved, then you have a big problem, right?

Here is what his email would’ve looked like if the scene was told, not shown:

“Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of an opening speech, you act like a nuclear bomb is going to go off, and you freak everyone out, and then say it was all a hoax? And then you say, ‘Welcome to the 2010 Nuclear Summit!'”

What does showing, not telling mean to you?  How do you work to avoid it as you write?

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Comments (2)

2 Responses to “A Great Example of Showing, Not Telling”

  1. melissa murphy says:

    Eeee… My biggest problem. I have been told more than once that my plot was intriguing, but must learn to show not tell. Still working on it. This really helped!

  2. Miranda Kenneally says:

    Thanks, Melissa!

    You might also find this helpful – from Mary Kole’s (agent at Andrea Brown) blog: http://kidlit.com/2009/12/18/what-show-dont-tell-really-means/

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