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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How to Show (and not Tell) Without Raising Your Word Count

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your word count has nothing to do with how well your novel is written, but it can be a red flag that there’s a problem.

I got several interesting questions on last week’s article about how point of view strengthens a novel that deserved further exploration. Essentially, commenters were concerned that showing would bloat their manuscripts and add too many words. They were particularly worried about already large manuscripts.

This is a legitimate concern for a lot of writers, because showing can use more words than telling. But it also allows you to cut words from other areas, because when you show you also:
  • Characterize
  • Dramatize
  • Describe
When you show, you allow characters to interact with the world, which sneaks in details while you show action and internalization. The details you use convey more than one thing, which saves you words in the long run.

If your novel has so much telling that editing it to show would significantly raise your word count, that’s a big red flag there are issues with the novel as a whole.


There’s probably also a lot of:
  • Backstory
  • Infodumps
  • Exposition
Showing is about dramatizing the story, and if you’re not doing enough of that, you’re probably explaining the story in multiple ways. So you need more words to explain what one sentence could convey. You tell motives and dump backstory instead of using actions, internalization, and subtext.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

Show, don’t tell is a lot easier to understand with examples, so let’s really dig into this.


First, let’s look at the exchanging a line for a line, since not every tell in a manuscript is going to be large. Often, it’s a word here and there that makes a section feel told.

Told: Maria was sad because Antonio told her he didn’t want to be married anymore. (14 words)

Shown: Antonio’s side of the closest sat empty. Marina sniffled. How could he leave her? (14 words)

Example one tells readers Maria is sad and why. It’s a summary of the situation. Example two shows a woman whose husband just left her. What’s more, there’s a pretty good chance that in example one, there’s a lot of description that leads up to this, or comes right after.

Told: Maria sat in an old robe and stared out the window, looking at the flower garden Antonio had built for her the first year they’d gotten married. She wiped away a tear, sad because Antonio told her he didn’t want to be married anymore. It didn’t make any sense to her. They’d been together nine years, and she’d always thought they’d had a good marriage. She couldn’t imagine not waking up beside him tomorrow morning. (75 words)

Shown: Maria sat in her old robe and stared out the window. The flower garden Antonio had built for her the first year of marriage needed tending, but why bother now. He’d left. Let their marriage die like those weed-choked zinnias. She blew her nose and chucked the tissue nowhere near the trash can. Nine years! Hadn’t that meant anything to him? Waking up alone tomorrow was going to suck. (69 words)

Example one tells readers the situation, but there’s no emotion or sense of Maria in there at all. Example two shows more of who Maria is and what’s she’s feeling, not just that she’s feeling something. The flower bed is mentioned not just because it’s a detail in the scene, but because it connects back to her emotional state—letting the flowers die just let the marriage died. The love no longer needs tending. A growing pile of tissues on the floor implies a lot of crying without saying it. No caring if she hits the trash can shows more of her mental state. We see her thoughts now, not just told conceptually what she’s thinking.

And we even saved six words.

One way showing can trim down word count is by eliminating unnecessary exposition. Novels with high word counts and a lot of telling, typically also have a lot of overwritten passages that describe the scene and the situation, often describing too much in one area and not enough in another.

(Here’s more with It's Exposition, Yeah, Baby! Handling Your Exposition.)

Let’s look at an example where showing cuts the word count down a lot more.


First, the told version:

When Maria got home, the phone for Antonio’s consulting business was ringing. He’d wanted the landline so he could appear more professional, even though she’d thought it was a waste of money. Nobody used landlines these days. She dashed across the living room and picked up the receiver from the rolltop desk.

“Hello?” She winced, because Antonio had told her a hundred times to answer with “Salvatore Consulting, what can I do for you today?” but she’d always felt stupid saying that.

“Tony around?” a man asked casually.

Her heart clenched tight as a fist. Tony would never be around again, and she was surprised he hadn’t forwarded his calls to his cell. “I’m sorry, he’s out. Can I take a message?” Maybe then she’d have a reason to call him, just to see if he missed her as much as she missed him. They’d barely spoken since he left three months ago.

“Yeah, tell him we’re meeting the twins for drinks at Bruno’s Taproom at seven instead of The Pit Stop at six. Leslie has a late customer at the salon.”

Shock nearly drove her to her knees. She gripped the phone so tight her knuckles went white, and her tight throat wouldn’t let any words out. Antonio was meeting a woman for drinks? Was that a date? It sure sounded like a date. How could he be dating already? They’d only been separated since Christmas. The divorce papers hadn’t even been filed yet.

“I’ll tell him,” she squeaked, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “Thank you for calling.”

She put the phone back in the cradle and wrapped her arms around herself. This couldn’t be happening. As the tears welled in her eyes, she slid down to the navy carpet and sobbed. She’d always thought he’d come back, but one phone call had dashed her dreams to bits. (311 words)

This snippet has a lot of common first-draft issues—it’s overwritten in parts, has lots of telling, and no strong sense of the character.

(Here’s more with 4 Reasons Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

Now let’s focus on what matters, and what shows Maria’s emotional state and personality better:


Ringing greeted Maria as she entered the house—the stupid landline Antonio insisted would look professional, but just added a bill they hadn’t needed every month. They’d have been better off using the cash for a monthly date night. They might still be married.

She snatched up the receiver. “Hello?” No way was she answering with “Salvatore Consulting, what can I do for you today?” like Antonio told her to.

“Tony around?” a man asked.

His words punched her in the gut. Tony would never be around again. Hold it together. “No, can I take a message?” If so, she’d have a reason to call him that wasn’t “I miss you, do you miss me?”

“Yeah, tell him we’re meeting the twins for drinks at Bruno’s Taproom at seven.”

Her skin flushed hot, then icy cold. Antonio was meeting a woman for drinks? After only three months? The divorce papers hadn’t even been filed yet.

“Sure,” she squeaked, her throat tight. She dropped the phone back in the cradle and hugged herself. This couldn’t be happening. He was supposed to come back.

Bruno’s at seven? She glanced at the clock. Five-seventeen. (191 words)

This version strips away the overwritten parts and gives a better sense of who Maria is and how she feels about this shock of Antonio dating again. Tastes may vary, but I think it makes readers care more about Maria because her reactions are clearer without all the overdone emotional tells. She’s more relatable.

Cutting out the told prose and extra information also saved 120 words. Some details got dropped, but how important were they? The desk and color of the carpet is unimportant, and was probably described earlier in the novel. There was way too much focus on Maria’s emotional reaction and it came across melodramatic and unoriginal, and filled with clichés. Maria was also pretty coherent and eloquent for a woman who was as shocked as those first descriptions claimed.

(Here’s more with What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)


Now for funsies, let’s look at what I changed and why I changed it. I think seeing my thought process might be helpful for those still struggling with figuring out what to show:


Told: When Maria got home, the phone for Antonio’s consulting business was ringing. He’d wanted the landline so he could appear more professional, even though she’d thought it was a waste of money. Nobody used landlines these days. She dashed across the living room and picked up the receiver from the rolltop desk. (52 words)

Shown: Ringing greeted Maria as she entered the house—the stupid landline Antonio insisted would look professional, but just added a bill they hadn’t needed every month. They’d have been better off using the cash for a monthly date night. They might still be married. (44 words)

The important details here are the ringing phone, the fact that it’s a landline, and Maria’s feelings about it. The type of desk doesn’t matter, and I’d assume the room was probably already described prior to this scene. If not, and the desk was important, I could have left it in. I was able to combine several sentences into one with “the stupid landline Antonio insisted would look professional, but just added a bill they hadn’t needed every month” and also give a bit more of Maria’s voice. It also felt more important to get some hints of their relationship and why it failed, so I added “They’d have been better off using the cash for a monthly date night. They might still be married.”

Told: “Hello?” She winced, because Antonio had told her a hundred times to answer with “Salvatore Consulting, what can I do for you today?” but she’d always felt stupid saying that. (30 words)

Shown: She snatched up the receiver. “Hello?” No way was she answering with “Salvatore Consulting, what can I do for you today?” like Antonio told her to. (26 words)

“Snatching up” the phone implies annoyance or irritation, and it made sense that if she had issues with the cost of the phone, having to answer it would annoy her now. That also continues with her reasons for not answering the phone. “Wincing” in example one didn’t give enough clues about how Maria felt, since you can wince for multiple reasons.

Told: “Tony around?” a man asked casually. (6 words)

Shown: “Tony around?” a man asked. (5 words)

Just one change here, since casually didn’t add anything to the line. The dialogue itself is casual, so I’d only need to expand on that if it didn’t sound the way most readers would read it.

Told: Her heart clenched tight as a fist. Tony would never be around again, and she was surprised he hadn’t forwarded his calls to his cell. “I’m sorry, he’s out. Can I take a message?” Maybe then she’d have a reason to call him, just to see if he missed her as much as she missed him. They’d barely spoken since he left three months ago. (65 words)

Shown: His words punched her in the gut. Tony would never be around again. Hold it together. “No, can I take a message?” If so, she’d have a reason to call him that wasn’t “I miss you, do you miss me?” (40 words)

What matters here is that the question blindsides Maria and causes an immediate emotional reaction. The extra explanations about why the call came to the landline and how long it had been since they’d spoken weakens that “gut punch” of emotion. If she’s rational enough to think those other thoughts, how thrown could she be?

Told: “Yeah, tell him we’re meeting the twins for drinks at Bruno’s Taproom at seven instead of The Pit Stop at six. Leslie has a late customer at the salon.” (29 words)

Shown: “Yeah, tell him we’re meeting the twins for drinks at Bruno’s Taproom at seven.” (14 words)

This is a straight up “infodump through dialogue” fix. Example one is all about telling readers details about the date, but people don’t talk like this. If the only thing that had changed was the time, there’s no need to go over all the other details or the reason for the change, especially since this guy clearly thinks he’s talking to a secretary or receptionist, not Tony’s wife. But I wanted to keep “Bruno’s Taproom” since I want to show Maria might go there.

Told: Shock nearly drove her to her knees. She gripped the phone so tight her knuckles went white, and her tight throat wouldn’t let any words out. Antonio was meeting a woman for drinks? Was that a date? It sure sounded like a date. How could he be dating already? They’d only been separated since Christmas. The divorce papers hadn’t even been filed yet. (63 words)

Shown: Her skin flushed hot, then icy cold. Antonio was meeting a woman for drinks? After only three months? The divorce papers hadn’t even been filed yet. (26 words)

Example one is full of clichés and over-the-top emotions and verges on melodrama. Instead of emotion, we get caricature. And the combination of “overly emotional reaction” combined with all the questions and details didn’t ring true to me. She probably wouldn’t be thinking so rationally. What matters here is that she has an emotional reaction, and she processes that Antonio might have a date only three months after moving out.

Told: “I’ll tell him,” she squeaked, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “Thank you for calling.” (16 words)

Told: She put the phone back in the cradle and wrapped her arms around herself. This couldn’t be happening. As the tears welled in her eyes, she slid down to the navy carpet and sobbed. She’d always thought he’d come back, but one phone call had dashed her dreams to bits. (52 words)

Shown: “Sure,” she squeaked, her throat tight. She dropped the phone back in the cradle and hugged herself. This couldn’t be happening. He was supposed to come back. (27 words)

Shown: Bruno’s at seven? She glanced at the clock. Five-seventeen. (9 words)

The last two paragraphs were overwritten as well, pouring on the melodramatic reactions and not giving a sense of how Maria is handling this news. I’m telling readers how upset she is, but there’s nothing there that shows it. I’d also imagine that Maria has probably had a few emotional breakdown scenes prior to this right after Antonio left, so another one—three months later—is going to feel repetitious. It also makes Maria look like she can barely function, and likely to lose reader sympathy instead of gain it. And like before, if she’s that thrown, she won’t be answering in complete sentences. Barely squeaking out “Sure” shows she’s a bit speechless.

I also added the bit at the end to show she’s might do something about hearing Antonio had a date, because it just felt like that’s where the scene was going. She has the time and place. Her reacting to the news makes sense in the shown version, because she’s not an emotional puddle on the floor.

Showing actually provided more narrative drive, since readers got a stronger sense of how Maria feels and what she might do about those feelings. It gives the story a place to go (and I’ll talk more about this next week).

Could I have elaborated and used up more of those 120 extra words? Absolutely. If it was important to add in some of these details, or expand more on Maria’s thoughts on emotions, I could have easily done that.

But here’s the thing—did I need to?

When you’re revising to show, consider the entire novel, not just that one scene.


You don’t need to add details or cover information that’s already been established. Remember, this is a snippet of a larger novel, and if Maria has been dealing with her emotions over Antonio leaving for several chapters, I’ve already covered it. Readers don’t want to see Maria constantly whining and crying, they want to see her doing whatever the plot is about.

Showing typically makes a novel better, even if it adds words. Telling and all its friends (backstory, infodump, exposition) explains an idea, it doesn’t dramatize a story. It’s the difference between someone telling you about a great movie they just saw versus going to see the movie yourself.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Work on a scene you fear has too much telling and not enough showing. Compare the word counts afterward. Higher or lower? Now, compare the strength of the scene. Better or worse?

Do you worry showing will raise your word count?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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8 comments:

  1. A definite keeper. "Show Don't Tell" is such a common saying, but not many people go into the details this well.

    You say to consider the entire book as you revise. I think all of writing as being about... all of the writing we do, choosing a style we can commit to on *every scene* that's similar. That is, we each need to think of the amount of detail and the kind of techniques that seem right for us, neither too sparse nor too bulky, and learn how to make the most of those. This kind of precise Showing of what matters is exactly what can help make that work.

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    1. Thanks! Style and intent plays such a huge role in all writing. One "rule" does not fit all, and you really do have to consider the big picture and how it affects you and your novel.

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  2. Or there's my favorite example of a superhero with teleportation *not* laying out all the reasons why teleporting from a jet plane has to worry about Conservation of Velocity. Instead he says

    "Picture this -- bumpety bumpety bumpety SPLAT! Too high up, and way, way too fast!"

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  3. The first pair of shorter examples have the standard problem of 'bad tell vs good show'. Reminds me of the before and after photos in diet magazines. A fair comparison would give the before photo a makeover and professional lighting, as well.

    The longer example seems best described as 'making it better', rather than specifically changing tell to show. For example, the line "She dashed across the living room and picked up the receiver from the rolltop desk" is precisely the kind of 'showing' beginners do when they think they need a play-by-play of every moment, precisely because they're too scared to tell (i.e. summarise).

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    Replies
    1. I feel the same way about those before and after photos.

      My intent was to show, as you said, the "common writing beginners do" when they try to show. Not every paragraph is going to be full-on told, and there will be shown lines mixed in. But they might not be helping the story at all.

      The goal with this article was to show how writers can improve their writing without bulking up on the words. And that does include taking a perfectly shown sentence and making it do more. Or cutting it if it isn't doing enough.

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  4. I really enjoyed this article, informative and straight forward yet I hesitate over it simply for the reason that the information proscribed relates to only certain styles and categories of books. If you are writing a history book, an offering for a Nobel or Booker prize, a Hard Sci-fi novel please ignore all that has been said but in general terms this is all good stuff.

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    Replies
    1. It applies to fiction, so if you're writing nonfiction, no, it doesn't apply.

      But it absolutely applies to all the types of novels you spoke of. You're free to ignore it if you want for your own writing, but most writers will improve their novels by showing.

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