Writing Excuses 10.23: Can You Tell Me How To Show?

Per the syllabus for the Season 10 Master Class, June is for painting a scene, and in this episode we’re going to talk about that paint.

We have all heard the “show, don’t tell” rule. In this episode we’ll discuss showing—how to do it well, how to do it consistently, and how to use it to accomplish things that telling just can’t get across.

Liner Notes: We make several references to Episode 3.14, in which Mary (in her first guest-hosting on the show) told us about the four rules of puppetry, as they apply to her writing. That was almost six years ago, so it’s probably been a while since you listened to it.


Sit in a room and describe the room. Do this for half an hour. Five or ten minutes in you’ll be ready to express hatred for the person assigning the exercise. Keep going for the full 30 minutes.

Now describe the same room in the specific style of a genre—epic fantasy, film noir, police procedural—using only 250 words.

Finally, describe this room from the POV of one of the characters in your current project.

The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, by Shallee McArthur, narrated by Cassandra Morris

16 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.23: Can You Tell Me How To Show?”

  1. This is so funny, I was looking for an episode just like this one last week, and when i couldn’t find it, I was going to suggest it for a new episode.
    Thanks so much guys (and gal :D)
    Love the podcast so much.

  2. Love the Writing Prompt/ Exercise. Proud to say I made it to about fifteen minutes before I felt hatred welling up within me… but drawing a blank on the correct term for a simple T.V. cabinet will do that to you I s’pose.

    Thank you all for taking time out of your schedules to help plebs like I with our writing! I don’t usually comment, like ever, but with the opportunity to be comment number one I couldn’t pass it up. I just realized comment moderation is on, so I may not be the first comment after all… but I shall hold out hope!

    Closing with a random comment, I know Brandon likes Magic, so along the line of hobbies, if any of you collect Warhammer or Warhammer 40k, I’d love to see the models you’ve painted or share mine! (@MattTaylor1776 on twitter)




  3. Great discussion today guys, I always feel like I learn something whenever I listen. Mary – that is a terrific exercise you suggested, thank you!

    One thing that you all touched upon briefly that I wanted to talk a bit more about was the word “suddenly.” While I agree that removing this word does greatly increase the impact of most “sudden” occurrences, I feel I am still running into problems. Right now I am gearing up for second draft edits on my first novel and I have several action sequences therein.
    My problem is this: using any technique too often I feel lowers the effectiveness of that technique. So I don’t want to simply state everything, since I feel it takes away from the truly jarring moments. My question is: is there a synonym or a phrase that can be used in place of “suddenly” that is as effective, if not more effective, than that word?

    Thanks guys – great podcast!

  4. @Colin: In context, “suddenly” usually means “unexpectedly, and very quickly.” This in turn suggests that the POV character does not have time to respond to what happened, and was unprepared for it.

    I sometimes use the M-dash.


    Amy began tucking grenades into her bandolier, carefully orienting each one so that—

    The explosion knocked Amy flat and winded her. Had she blown herself up? Her ears rang as she rolled against the wall, taking inventory of her arms and legs on the way.


    See? The explosion is sudden, but the important thing is how it’s perceived. Amy doesn’t know what exploded, or where, and is still trying to decide whether she’s alive by the end of the second paragraph.

  5. I was blown away by the advice that prose is hindered by the “establishing shot” and instead works almost inversely to film in that way. Is there any episode in which this idea covered in more depth? Or any other publications for that matter? Thank you: for this, and the last ten years of Writing Excuses.

  6. Thank you for reminder to be WITH the character in descriptions and for challenge to do 2 or 3 things with each description. Best- Erik
    PS You guys are awesome.

  7. I don’t know if this has been a problem for anybody else, but I’ve been unable to play the last 3 episodes (including this one) on my ipod. The episodes download just fine in itunes, migrate over to the ipod, but when I try to play them the podcast player locks up or crashes entirely.

    The episodes don’t have any problem playing in itunes itself on my computer, but that kind of eliminates the convenience of listening to them during my commute.

  8. In the white room with black curtains near the station…

    Right. Painting scenes with words? But where are the buckets of paint? And the stagehands? And…

    Over here, you’ll find a transcript, with the words in black and white (or whatever color scheme you use for your browser and LiveJournal) to exercise your eyeballs!


    Or you can read all about it in the archives.

  9. @Tom: I’m pretty sure that they have mentioned it before. I’m too sleepy to go archive diving for it now though.

  10. One hour in and I am still neutrally describing the first bookshelf in my office. I am lovhating this prompt, thank you Mary!

  11. I lasted only twenty minutes. Of course, description has never been my strong point. ‘The large, brown dresser was very….large. And brown.’

    1. At risk of sounding all scoldy and parental, the point of the exercise is to force you to push past weakness. If something isn’t your strong point, it’s exactly what you should be practicing more of.

      That said, I totally feel the large brownness.

  12. I thought I had the idea of ‘show don’t tell’ down pretty good, but this episode emphasized a few things for me that were very helpful; in particular the reminder of PoV and showing the scene through the characters perception. I have a character hiding behind a ramshackle and soot covered wall, while they watch the street. As I heard the podcast I realized I could could make everything more immediate by having her interact with the wall (i.e. using soot from the wall to blacken her face, prying one of the loose shards of brick to use as a weapon etc) to generate the image I want, in a more meaningful way.

  13. The chestnut dresser stood almost 9 feet tall, skimming the ceiling and was at least an arm width wide. Kayli would have to take it out piece by piece to get it out of the room. But she didn’t want to mark up the ceiling or damage the dresser, which would go at auction for at least 13,000 pounds. But the only thing she could think about it, was that it was very large and very brown and couldn’t figure out how to dissemble it. <–I've been watching a lot of British dramas…

    I could rewrite that without conflict too… Kishōtenketsu–had a story published under that structure, though I had to modify it a bit for the American market. Using the Japanese sentence order (as in what order the completed sentences go in in terms of a paragraph didn't float though–can't say I didn't try…). I managed it because people expected there to be conflict which never showed up but then there was a resolution suddenly and a revelation about the relationship of the characters. This structure is good for examining characters and every day life. (Slice of life) and small happenings which don't pan out into larger conflicts. I also used tone to cheat my way through. I'm also playing with Korean story conventions/structure and Indian conventions and story structure with my current novel. I find the three act structure a yawn fest. What time is it? Oh, I know because X thing happened right on time. Yep. *yawn*.

    Kayli examined the dresser and prodded at it. The way it was put together was with pegs, which fascinated her. The wooden pegs ere a different color from the chestnut dresser. She stepped back from it. It was definitely a faked antique, but she liked it more for that detail.

    It's not description in this case, it's detailing according to PoV. Detail is specific description is wider. Often helps to think that way (as said)

    There are times when you do have to tell. It's not never tell, it's tell when you need to and show when you need to. Saying something like, "The long hand of the clock was perpendicular and in a vertical upwards position and the short hand of the clock was at the character with a hook and a straight line on top with one horizontal line connecting the hook and horizontal top", would definitely be better served at saying: "It was five o'clock". Second one is telling, definitely, and the first one is showing, but unless you really, really have someone obsessed, unfamiliar with clocks or who has a severe short term memory, you're more likely to use the second. Time usually is told. Color is usually told, you don't go into the exact number on the color spectrum. Sudden amount of time passing is also usually told. Pick your battles according to PoV.

  14. Great Episode! Great writing prompt, Mary. For an extreme description example might I suggest picking up a copy of Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley or Lost Illusions. I remember a vase of fresh picked flowers that he went on about for 3 or 4 pages. It’s not for everyone but the man had a way with words. Alright back to writing

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