Fiction Tip Friday – Show, Don’t Tell

One story, two ways:

When Joe left me, I was pretty upset. I had a hard time understanding why he’d done it. I used to call his number and then hang up after a few rings, because I was too scared to hear what he had to say. One day another woman answered. I could tell she was attractive, just by her voice. I hung up and didn’t call back. I was so hurt, and angry, and humiliated.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s telling us what happened. But it’s only telling–we know what the narrator feels, but we’re not sharing it. We’re observing it, clinically. We might have a vague sense of sympathy, but that’s about it.

Now try this:

My hands weren’t shaking, but somehow, I just couldn’t make the call. I kept dropping my phone, hitting the number above his, or below it. When I finally hit “Joe Porter” in my contacts, I let it ring exactly twice before I stabbed “End Call.” I realized I didn’t know what to say–worse, what would he say?

I tried again, later that night. It rang twice…three times, and I was about to hang up again when I heard a low, smooth voice I didn’t recognize.


That voice wore red silk and high heels. That voice wore black lace bras, if it wore a bra at all, and if it did it would dangle the bra by a single finger before letting it fall to the bedroom floor with a smile.

Oh, god.

“Hello?” Still sultry, even when she was impatient.

I hung up.

My heart was racing so fast I felt a little sick, so sick I even knelt on the cold bathroom tile and waited a second, but nothing came up. I stayed there anyway, a long time, folded up on the floor with my cheek pressed into the wall.

I’m not saying you need all this–because certainly, this takes up a hell of a lot more space on the page. But there’s so much more going on here.

Everybody gets angry, and everybody’s been humiliated. Everyone’s had to make a stressfull call to someone they weren’t sure wanted to talk to them. But everyone experiences those moments differently. We, the reader, are here to see how YOUR character experiences these things. We don’t want you to tell us they were sad–HOW sad? How did it feel? Can I relate? What was going through their minds?

Bottom line, we don’t just want facts–we want an experience. We want you to make us FEEL something–and telling us someone was angry or hurt, even if you tell us a hundred times, just isn’t going to cut it.

That’s what it means to show, versus tell.

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