Fiction writing shows, not tells

July 20, 2012
By Mary Hutchings Reed
Mary Hutchings Reed, of counsel to Winston & Strawn LLP, has more than 35 years of experience in intellectual property and entertainment law. Read more about her at and

Because you are a writer, and because you are well-practiced and disciplined, I’m sure that in the past three months you’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easily you’re getting your story on paper.

As a lawyer, you are accustomed to efficiency in prose. You probably write automatically to the page limits imposed by court rules.

You may be beginning to worry that your story isn’t long enough for a novel, after all.

This may be the time to reread some of what you’ve written and notice what a good legal writer you are.

You’ve told your reader upfront what happened, accurately characterized the facts, not distracted them with irrelevancies, made sure they have a clear sense of cause and effect.

You spouse has read your chapter and passed it back with a smile of encouragement: “Really interesting.” You’d like a little more “oomph!” in the compliments.

Clearly, your reader understands exactly what is happening in the story, but do they understand how the character feels? Have they experienced what the character is experiencing? Or have you merely told them?

Lawyers tend to take the guess work out of telling their client’s stories.

“Joe lost his legs in a car accident caused by the defendant. Joe was driving northbound in his sports car at 30 mph. Harry was driving his truck eastbound at 50 and didn’t stop at the intersection. Harry hit Joe’s car broadside.”

The novelist would make the reader wait to find out what happened to Joe.

The novelist would join Joe, driving in his new red MG, the one he was so proud of because he bought it with the money saved from his first part-time job.

It’s a beautiful day and he’s off to see his girlfriend, with whom he’s had a fight but who loves cars. He’s listening to “their song” on the radio. He’s thinking about …

What’s going to happen? The reader feels the tension. Something is being set up — the big reconciliation or the big crash? Either the reader feels surprise, “I didn’t see that coming!” or smart, “I knew it! I felt something wasn’t right.” In both cases, the reader has had the experience of the car crash in what approximates “real time.”

If you write the second way, the novelist’s way, you’ve written a scene.

In the car, Joe might engage in dialogue, on the cell phone (if he’s not driving) or with a passenger. We would understand more about Joe from what he says, what others say to him, how he responds, how he gestures, what he thinks but doesn’t say, what he remembers.

As readers, we would discover Joe much as the writer discovers Joe, by a series of actions, thoughts and words, as they happen. (Yes, even memories “happen” at a particular time.) This is the magic of fiction. We participate with the character rather than only being told about the character.

At one of the first writing workshops I ever attended, I wrote a sentence in which I described how I got the idea to take my female godchildren on a week’s sailing trip, without any men on board. My husband and I were on our boat in a harbor in the Caribbean and I saw an “all-girl” boat sail in and drop anchor. The idea hit me that I could do that.

The workshop instructor, a poet and memoirist, asked me how I knew that the people on the other boat were women.

I said, “I looked at the boat and saw women on it.”

“How did you know?” he asked again.

“I looked at them,” I replied again, and he still wasn’t satisfied. “How exactly did you know they were women?”

I thought I knew a woman when I saw one.

With the tenacity of the best litigator I’ve ever met, he insisted, “What were the visual clues? What did their bodies look like? The curves of their calves? Were they wearing bikinis?”

When I could answer these things, he guided me towards a scene where the reader could have the idea I had long before it appeared on the page: I wrote a scene where I watched the activity on the other boat as the sailors appeared on deck from down below — first long blond hair, then lithe muscles, then flowered bikinis.

I gave myself the thought, “Where are the men?” When none appeared, then the idea of an all-girl cruise occurred to me. An astute reader probably got there before me.

That’s how I learned the basic rule of narrative, “show, don’t tell.” We call it story-telling but we mean story-showing. If when you’re writing this way, you feel like you’re stringing your reader along, good! They’ll stay with you to the very end.

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