Scratching – The Secret to Vivid Writing
by James Thayer
What’s the difference
between these two sentences?
His arm itched.
He scratched his arm.
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.
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."
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.
are some examples of the difference between telling and showing.
Men were always attracted to her.
Her lips were pouty but quick to smile, and her eyes were full of
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
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
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
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
A red double-decker grinds past, . . . --William Gibson, Pattern
The street is busy and loud.
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.
Tom often was too busy to pay attention to his wife, and as a result
she sometimes flirted with other men.
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.
Even though she was poor, she tried to be presentable.
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?”
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
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.
Nancy’s poverty had led to her tuberculosis, and Oliver was the only
one who seemed to care she was sick.
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
“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
She was tough, and determined to teach her new partner a lesson
about condescension. But teaching him anything was going to be
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.
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.
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,
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
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.”
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
How can we remind ourselves to show rather than tell? Just keep in
mind the difference between He scratched his arm and His
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing