Scratching – The Secret to Vivid Writing

by James Thayer

What’s the difference between these two sentences? 

His arm itched. 

He scratched his arm.

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

The difference is profound.  His arm itched is telling.  He scratched his arm is showing.  Showing is almost always more vivid.  Understanding the difference between showing and telling will instantly make someone a better writer.    

Telling and showing are terms of art in the writing business.   The two words have a specific meaning, and for many new writers the distinction is difficult.  Robert Sawyer says, “Every writing student has heard the rule that you should show, not tell, but this principle seems to be among the hardest for beginners to master.”  

Telling explains.  It is a lecture, sometimes a short lecture—sometimes only one word--but a lecture nevertheless: Tom was tired.  Showing, on the other hand, reveals.  It sets out the evidence and allows the reader to draw her own conclusion: Tom yawned.  Anton Chekhov said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

Telling offers the reader the writer’s conclusion:  She could run fast.  Showing presents evidence to the reader, and allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions:  She raced across the playfield, leaving all the other children far behind.  When readers are allowed to draw their own conclusions based on evidence, the story becomes more vivid and involving. 

Here is the writer telling the reader about a character:  She was kind.  Here is the writer presenting evidence to the reader (showing):  She carefully adjusted the old man’s apron so the soup wouldn’t drip onto his new shirt.  Janet Evanovich says that showing allows the reader to discover:  "[I]nstead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue.  Showing brings your characters to life." 

Think of showing as an offer of proof, much as a lawyer presents evidence to a jury to allow the jury to reach a verdict.  Showing and telling give the reader the same information.  But John is young—an example of telling—is a flat-out statement.  John looked in the mirror, searching for whiskers, any whisker, which would be his first.  This is showing.  Evidence has been given to the reader that John is twelve to fifteen years old. 

Here are some examples of the difference between telling and showing. 

1.  Telling:  Men were always attracted to her.

Showing:  Her lips were pouty but quick to smile, and her eyes were full of life.

2.  The tea was too hot. 

The tea was still bubbling, so she lowered the pot back to the stove.

3.   It was raining. 

His hair dripped rainwater onto his shoulders.

4.   She was thin. 

Her coat hung loosely on her.

5.   Basketball is a hard sport to learn.

Jack tried to dribble the basketball, but it squirted away from him and rolled across the gym floor.

6.   The prescription of his glasses was too strong. 

He squinted through his glasses, but the words were a blur.

7.   The cat was fat.

The cat tried to jump onto the sofa, but its massive girth worked against it, and the cat dropped back to the rug.

8.   Bad weather was coming. 

Dark clouds were moving in from the southwest. 

How do the masters do it?  How do they make their stories so vivid and compelling that the reader—sitting in her chair at home—is transported to another place and time?  Here are examples of showing from the masters, followed by examples of how a lesser writer would tell the same thing: 

Show:  A red double-decker grinds past, . . .  --William Gibson, Pattern Recognition. 

Tell:  The street is busy and loud.

Show:  The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom’s ear whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair and without a word went inside.  As if his absence quickened something within her Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing, “I love to see you at my table, Nick.  You remind me of a—of a rose, an absolute rose.  Doesn’t he?”  F. Scott Fitzgerald,  The Great Gatsby.

Tell:  Tom often was too busy to pay attention to his wife, and as a result she sometimes flirted with other men.

Show:  Her hair hung loose in red-brown coils, her corduroy coat was velvet with coal dust, and she wore a satin ribbon around her neck to balance her ensemble.  --Martin Cruz Smith, Rose.

Tell:  Even though she was poor, she tried to be presentable.

Show:  She rocked herself to and fro: caught her throat, and, uttering a gurgling sound, struggled and gasped for breath.

“Nancy!’ cried Oliver.  “What is it?”

The girl beat her hands upon her knees, and her feet upon the ground; and, suddenly stopping, drew her shawl close round her; and shivered with cold.  –Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.

Tell:  Nancy’s poverty had led to her tuberculosis, and Oliver was the only one who seemed to care she was sick.

Show:  He came around the desk and pulled two chairs out of the way.  He lifted the coffee table and put it on the sofa, then he stood on the blood-colored rug, his arms again held wide.

“Now we have some room,”  he said.  “You’re quick.  I give you that.  But I’m ready now.  Come on.”

“Look, I was making a  point.  I’m not trying to hurt you.  I just don’t want to be sitting here for six months getting your chick act.  I want you to take me seriously.  And what we’re doing seriously.”

“Scared?”  he asked.

She looked away with irritation, and while her head was still wound in the other direction, she dove at his midsection.  Even as she lunged, she knew it wasn’t going to work.  They’d both seen the same movies and he was ready for the sucker move.  He stepped aside, grabbing her arm to avoid her, then catching her around the waist.  --Scott Turow, Personal Injuries.

Tell:  She was tough, and determined to teach her new partner a lesson about condescension.  But teaching him anything was going to be hard.

See how much more involving these examples of showing are, compared to the telling?  Robert Sawyer says showing “forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts . . . for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively.”

Why do writers often tell rather than show?  Because telling is easier.  David Morrell says, “It requires painstaking plotting in order to establish scenes in which general information about a character is dramatized in specific terms.”  To show, the characters must be in a certain position, which requires the writer to plan ahead.  It’s easier to tell because the writer need only begin the lecture, anytime, anywhere.

What if your character isn’t in a position in your story for you to reveal (show) something important about her?  Then it’s probably not the best time to let the reader know about the fact.  Save it for later.  Here’s an example of telling where a lot of facts are crammed into one paragraph: 

Allison’s passion was crew racing, and she trained in a single-seat shell, and often made dangerous mistakes as she rowed, such as going out into rough water.  Her father had founded Western Investments, and Allison had had been raised in a huge house in Chukanut Drive, overlooking Puget Sound. 

This is a dull grocery list about Allison.  How does an author show this information, instead of telling it?  

Allison gripped an oarlock as the racing shell lifted and sank in the swell.  Goosebumps had risen all along her arms, and she could see her breath.  Her wet sweatshirt clung to her skin, and seawater dripped from her sweatpants onto the bottom of the shell.  She touched her nose where her eyeglasses should have been.  They must’ve fallen off when she was in the water.  She hugged herself, shivering. 

The show version is more vivid than the tell version.  We learn Allison is in a rocking racing shell, that she has fallen into the water, and she had been doing something dangerous: out in a racing shell on water that had swells.  But what about the information regarding her huge home and her investment banker father?  It’s not needed.  Not here, anyway.  If her father’s success and the size of Allison’s home are important, reveal that information where it has a connection to the action.  Don’t tell it now.  Show it later, with something like: 

Allison stepped into the hallway.  A portrait of her grandfather hung above the marble table, and the old guy always seemed to stare at her.  Carrying a dripping umbrella, the first-floor maid smiled quickly at her.”   

The reader has just been shown that Allison lives in a big house, and that her family is wealthy.  Information can be rationed in a story, and given out when it can be shown rather than told to the reader.

Sometimes, though, telling is unavoidable.  At times in a novel the writer must dispense information quickly, and also tell the reader the meaning of that information.  Once in a while the reader will appreciate a thick and quick dose of explanation.  Here is Dickens describing Scrooge:  “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”   But always use caution when telling.  Readers are no longer in school.  They usually don’t want a lecture. 

 How can we remind ourselves to show rather than tell?  Just keep in mind the difference between He scratched his arm and His arm itched. 

James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (

James ThayerComment