Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?


First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.


File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Tackling Writer Stage Fright: Writing What We’re Weakest In

We all have those elements we’d consider our writing strengths, whether it be writing dialogue, world-building, description, emotion, and so on. It’s always a rush to capitalize on these things and write a great bit of dialogue or to have a scene come together so readers can get a true sense of that world you’ve created. But I think it feels even better to tackle the things we consider our weaknesses.

An analogy: My favorite professor from college was my first biology professor. While he was a proficient instructor, what I remember most was about him was that he was an outstanding performer. He was engaging and enthusiastic, sometimes he dressed up like pivotal scientists from history, and once he even taught and led us in a song. (Over twenty years later, and I still remember that this song was about the evolution of Amphioxus.) Imagine my surprise when my professor admitted to me that his biggest weakness was stage fright. I was floored to hear that he, the most engaging presenter I’d ever seen, had to rehearse every single lecture prior to walking into that lecture hall or he’d suffer from stage fright. He could have hid behind his lecture notes or whatever the equivalent of PowerPoint slides were back then (they were called overheads). But no, he battled his stage fright by rehearsing and then doing multiple stage performances Every. Single. Day. 
This professor was not only my ultimate inspiration for wanting to be a biology educator, but his lessons now also extend to other aspects of my life. For instance, his attitude serves to remind me daily about how to view the challenges of writing. Not the song and dance bit (because that would be weird), but in how we constantly need to work on the things we consider our weaknesses. Tackling our own sources of stage fright, if you will.

With every manuscript I write, I’ve identified specific challenges. The challenge with my first manuscript was just to finish the darned thing (ha!), but then it was to go back through and make sure my character had a strong and unique voice. With the second one, I wanted to focus on becoming better at world-building and writing from a dual POV. With my current contemporary story, my biggest challenge coincides with the thing I struggle with most: writing emotion. I want to to move past description of how events affect my characters and evoke real emotion in my readers. 
Hooray, a new challenge! But oh, man. A new challenge. How do we tackle these writing challenges and get our WIPs ready to step onto center stage? You’re probably doing a lot of these things already, but here are just a few important reminders:
Selective revisions and layering.

When I’m drafting, I leave placeholders or specific notes for myself in areas like, “Include more emotion here” or general comments like, “Yuck. Fix this later with something way more awesome than this.” I find that if I dwell too much on those weak parts for too long during the drafting process, I lose the steady footing that I gained from my strong scenes and have trouble moving forward. You can always go back later and fortify the areas that are weak by selectively revising or layering in those things. For me, selectively revising means combing back through my WIP three or four times and strengthening those specific moments that need more emotion.

Constructive criticism is a gift.
You might not even know what areas are weak until somebody looks at a draft and points them out, so listen to constructive criticism. (With my current WIP, my critique partners give me comments like, “We want to get more into his head right here.”) The word “criticism” evokes defensive feelings in a lot of people, but that’s because this word has two meanings. One does has a negative connotation that centers around disapproval, but the other meaning is much more balanced. Ideally, constructive criticism will hit on both the strengths and weaknesses of your work. Ultimately it’s up to you as to what you want to do with feedback, and you’ll also have to consider the source of criticism when you seek out or receive feedback. Your critique group, other trusted writers familiar with your genre, or other avid readers who are experienced with your genre will give more useful feedback than a random person off the street who states his/her opinion, for instance. If your trusted sources hit on the same thing they think could be improved, don’t ignore it. Regardless of if it’s positive or negative, view each tidbit of feedback from your trusted sources as a gift. You can either use it or stick it on a shelf somewhere, but you should look at it before deciding which.

Read, read, and read some more.

A bookseller once told me that the books that I purchase are tax-deductible just like when you might have to buy textbooks for a class, and this was the greatest news ever! Read. Read a lot, whether it be craft books for inspiration or technique or books in the genre you’re writing. Some writers say they cannot read books in the genre they’re currently writing because it affects their own story too much. However, other writers I know deliberately read in their genre to submerge themselves in the mood or style they desire for their own writing. Because my current challenge is writing emotion, I’m looking for the books in my genre that give me SO MANY FEELS. When I read a book that leaves me feeling flat, I know what not to do. If I’m buying more tissues during this process, it’s all in the name of research.

Don’t let stage fright keep you off the stage.
If you flip your weaknesses on their unruly heads and go that extra mile to address those weaknesses, your readers won’t even know you struggled with those aspects during the writing process. My biology professor didn’t step out into the classroom every day without first addressing his stage fright, and his audience was none the wiser. Nor did he wait until his stage fright was no longer an issue before he stepped out into the classroom. As it turns out, he had stage fright for his entire teaching career, but he kept performing. And he did it wonderfully.

What’s your biggest writing weakness, and how do you tackle it? 
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her at

Trusting Ourselves as Storytellers

The amount of writing advice that is available on the internet is daunting. We are supposed to write what we know, show don’t tell, match the beats, give a character voice that is different than the writer voice, and so forth. Moving along with our stories, we learn the difference between en dashes and em dashes, when to use that, when to use which, how to format all the things and when we have molded our story to precisely what we think it was meant to be, we start looking for ways to see what others think.

I (along with many others) am a HUGE supporter of contests. They are put on by some of the most generous people in the writer world, people who have bought into the idea of paying it forward in the realist of terms. My own writing has improved dramatically from reading reactions people have to a pitch, a query or the first 250, and from understanding what agents see when they read what I’ve written. 
I’ve also learned the very real importance of understanding what kind of a writer these kinds of contests are looking for. 
But there with this feedback comes the potential of a writer losing her voice. Someone who crafts stories containing more emotion, more character, slower plot may question his writing ability. Reading the praise for something that is immediately funny, action packed, witty or otherwise may create the inclination to ditch the heartfelt plot and move for faster pacing. 
This is why, in the midst of feedback, we make sure we are getting feedback from those to get what we are writing. 
Let me explain. 
The writing community is very generous in time and effort given to help others in pursuit of the dream. However, each of us also have preferences for what we like to read. Where some are interested in fast pace, snappy dialogue and kick-a characters, others want luxurious descriptions or quiet walks through a forest. Good intentions are just that, but there are going to be pieces of advice that don’t quite click, and when there are two or three, we can begin to doubt our own writer’s voice. 
I suggest a few things to keep the doubts away (as much as possible).
First: trust the feedback from the people you trust. 
We have talked before about the value of a writer’s group. It is essential that we find these people, meeting whatever way possible, and that the lines of communication are wide open. These are the people you can send a quick “Do you agree?” question in regards to feedback, knowing that the stranger online is only seeing a fraction of a fraction of your work.
Second: pay attention to the comments and critiques from the gatekeepers and professionals who represent and sell what you are writing. 
There are several agents and editors who represent my genre that I follow like a hawk, determined to read and pay attention when they write advice articles. What they are talking about for me will not necessarily apply to my CP’s writing MG, YA or NA, but it is so incredibly important for me. These are the people who are making the sales, who are marketing the books, who are putting the books in the hands of readers. They know what makes someone keep reading, they know what makes someone put a book down, and when they talk, we need to listen. 
Third: read online reviews people leave on the genre you are writing. 
This is your focus group and you don’t have to do anything to get their feedback. Notice what they say about books they like, which ones are getting high marks and take note at what it is they do that you could also incorporate. DO NOT COPY WHAT HAS BEEN DONE (really, that’s plagiarism, and more than that, really crappy behavior) but pay attention to what your readers love. All books have tension of some sort – do your readers like that as emotional? Intellectual? Is the discovery of self enough to engage your readers or do the extenuating circumstances need to be heightened. This also gives the benefit of comp titles when querying or just pitching to a friend on the street. 
Fourth: keep reading what you are writing. 
It is important to read lots, all the time, everything, but make sure that you are giving your mind the opportunity to be fully immersed in the genre you are writing. In reading our genres, we can know where the mid-point is, how the characters are developed, what the plot points need to contain, the kind of language that is accepted. This is vastly different for each genre and for each aged reader, but they are so very important to mark in our own writing. 
Last: trust the person creating the story

You thought of your characters. You created their circumstances. You have a unique narrative voice to tell their story. When the feedback is piling in, when the opinions seem to contradict themselves, close your eyes, look deep into yourself, and know who the creator is. When you do this, you will understand when something needs to be fixed, when there has been a quirk in the story that cannot stay, and you will feel when what you have just needs a final polish. No one can tell you when that happens, and there will be significant trial and error (and probably some tears), but bit by bit, who you are as a storyteller will begin to unfold. 

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

How to Take Criticism

As you may know, this is a group blog of critique partners.  We get together every other week in the real world and critique 10-15 pages of each others work, which is usually sent a few days before.  This allows each of us with life to find time to pre-read and comment, then the discussion can be about what was intended in the writing and what was perceived.

People, this is an essential element of writing.  Feedback from new readers is the only way to see how readers interpret what you are writing.  And yes, there will be times when the feedback isn’t what you thought it would be and there are times when the readers are not going to get at all what you were trying to convey.

This period is not the time to get defensive, tell others what you like about what is wrong with what you have, etc.  The key to this is to remember that people who have taken the time out to read your story are probably just as busy with their lives as you are with yours, but they dedicated a chunk of time for you. 

If suggestions are made that are completely off base, say thank you.  You don’t necessarily have to incorporate all the advice, but these people are trying to help.  When people are confused with your story, it is appropriate to explain what you were trying to convey and then listen to the feedback that could help that intent come across more clearly.  And most important, remember that these people are trying to help you with your work, and that comments about your writing is not an attack on you. 

Listen, be grateful and then filter through as appropriate.

Do you have a critique group to help with your writing?  How has your writing changed because of feedback you received?