Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 8 of 12: Show Rather Than Tell

Cover of Winter's Bone, a novel
8. Think of your lifestory as scenes in a movie

I dislike movies with narrators. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Get on with the story fer cryin' out loud. Narration at the beginning signals I’m not going to like the movie, while narration later in the movie bogs down my interest. Narration instead of action is a roadblock to my enjoyment, whether it’s words on the screen or voice over.

Synonyms for telling are narration and exposition. A certain amount of exposition is necessary to move along your story, but only the more important parts deserve longer expositions. The lifeblood of your story is interaction of characters. What did you do when they came into and went out of your life and how did you feel about what occurred?

Scenes in movies
Think of your lifestory as a series of scenes in a movie. In the movie business, big screen or television, writers put together stories using only four scenes. Wait a minute. How is that possible? Simple: The scenes are indoors night or day and outdoors night or day. That’s it. Nothing else. Everything happens within the framework of those scenes.

In your lifestory you may be an observer of a scene or you may be in the scene. Close your eyes and visually walk through the scene. Who are your characters? What are they feeling, doing, and saying? Where have they been? Where are they going? Why are they doing things? What results from their actions? When will they reveal their secrets? How are they going to get out of this mess?

Creative writing instructor Robert McKee, in Story, his handbook on the craft of screenwriting: "Never force words into a character's mouth to tell the audience about world, history, or person. Rather show us honest, natural scenes in which human beings talk and behave in honest, natural ways . . . In other words, dramatize exposition."

Action scenes don't need words. Characters in the movie Jurassic Park seek safety inside a laboratory. The camera shows a bowl of motionless water on a lab table. Small ripples appear in the water and become increasingly stronger, low thumping noises get louder, then a dinosaur crashes into the lab. Jumped outta my seat!
Words on paper
Freelance editor and mentor Bobbie Christmas says this is telling: "Harry was nervous. He wondered if the police sketch looked so much like him that he could be recognized." She says this is showing: "Harry raked his clammy hands against his jeans. He gawked at the bulletin board. The police sketch gazed back at him, his image exactly. He tugged at his collar, gulped, and glanced around to see if anybody recognized him."

Daniel Woodrell begins nearly every chapter of Winter’s Bone describing a harsh Ozarks winter. His characters rely on winter settings: 

“Weather burst on the woman’s hat and shoulders, wet spray jumping. She touched Ree’s hood, rapped knuckles against the ice to break it fine, and swiped the pieces away.”

“Ree stomped the ice and it creaked but did not crack wide. She took another step, and another, then came back for the ax. She stood on the ice near the willow, raised the ax and put all her feelings into the whacks she delivered unto that pond.”

"Black ice lay slick where the road bottomed, and the truck slid a surprise twist sideways and completed most of a circle before rubber found dry asphalt again and Gail yanked the squealing tires straight. She yelped and slowed fearfully to a shambling pace, then suddenly stopped altogether and sat trembling, overlooking a steep bank of scrub and a frozen cow pond."

Sorry to say the movie version did not do justice to Woodrell's winter scenes. Alas, the director didn't ask my advice.

Photo courtesy Little, Brown and Company

How have you overcome the urge to tell rather than to show action?


  1. Excellent post, Wayne! Showing rather than telling is hard, especially for the beginning writer, but, as we read, study, learn, and PRACTICE, we find it gets easier. You profiled one of my favorite books, Winter's Bone, too. Good meat in that book.

  2. Thanks, Yvonne. Paying attention to how the successful writers do it is the best way. Read, read, read and then edit, edit, edit.