Show Me Now


Everyone has their own reading pet peeve.  Some readers get really bogged down by excessive head-hopping; others can’t bear linguistic anachronisms.  My beef is possibly the most unfair one of all, because it’s the hardest one to execute: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Readers – okay, I – gripe about this a lot.  Telling isn’t bad – it just isn’t as effective or interesting as showing.  Instead of being told that the heroine is smart, I’d like to be shown.  Instead of being told that the romantic couple love each other, I’d like to see it.  And so on and so forth.  Obviously this doesn’t apply to every situation or every sentence, because then the book would be twice as long.  And if the author simply needs to impart basic information, then telling is the way to go.  But from a reader’s point of view, nothing beats character depth through showing rather than telling.

And there are heaps of authors out there who do it marvellously.  Meredith Duran, Sherry Thomas, Elizabeth Hoyt, Joanna Bourne, Mary Balogh, Jo Goodman, Carla Kelly, Julia Quinn – if I named every author I consider masters at the art of showing, I’d run out of breath.  Each of these authors has her own inimitable style, but they all tell damn good stories, tell them well, and show us who their characters are.

One of my favourite songs in My Fair Lady comes towards the end, when Eliza Doolittle is being romanced by the aristocratic Freddie Eynsford-Hill (a very yummy pre-Sherlock Jeremy Brett).  He gives her a whole heap of romantic mumbo-jumbo and finally, exasperated, Eliza (played, and in this clip sung, by Audrey Hepburn) bursts out:

Don’t talk of stars burning above – if you’re in love, show me!  Tell me no dreams filled with desire – if you’re on fire, show me….Don’t talk of love lasting through time; make me no undying vow – show me now!

I couldn’t put it any better.

What’s your reading pet peeve?  Do you get bugged by telling and not showing?

- Jean AAR

This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Jean AAR, Reading, Romance reading. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Show Me Now

  1. JML says:

    Everything you said Jean with the added pet peeve of authors who tell and then show and then tell again just in case the reader missed the author’s point.

    I just finished a new bestselling author’s work and I was doing an eye-roll through a great deal of it. She would show her character to be a kind and good person and then -just in case the reader is stupid- tell them just HOW kind and good the character is. And repeat. And again.


  2. Goosie says:

    Interesting that you mention this. I’ve been reading a lot of Julie Garwood historicals and she’s of the tell – don’t show – camp. That being said, I still really like her stuff but it does get obnoxious after a while.

    My biggest pet peeve is when people have babies in stories and somehow their relationships are magically fixed. Like somehow having a baby manages to fix all relationship issues that you’ve had prior to the pregnancy. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this, but I know that this happens in More than a Mistress by Mary Balogh. I still love that book but I love it a little less than I would have.

  3. Scorpio M. says:

    My peeve is a variation of the show, don’t tell. I find it extremely hard to believe when the author tells me that the h & H fell in love AT FIRST SIGHT therefore any crazy, ridiculous, supposedly romantic thing they do hereafter is done in the name of love.

  4. Katrina says:

    I really hate it when I’m told things, especially (like JML says) when I’m told it over and over.

    Another annoyance is when it feels like the author is following a paint-by-numbers template. I recently read one where every single scene started with dialogue, then a description of where the characters were sitting to have that dialogue, then the history of the building they were in, then back to the conversation. Bo-ring!

    Last one is when it feels like an author has written a Regency just because they thought it would be easy to write a Regency historical, but they take no care over historical detail. I read one where the hero was shocked the heroine was a virgin, even though there’d never been a hint of scandal around her.

    All right, you shouldn’t have gotten me started…

  5. May says:

    This is one of my pet peeves – especially in romance genre. I don’t even think it has to lengthen a book especially. Just the right phrase, the right image, the right action on part of the character can “tell” us SO much.
    It’s an artform, that’s for sure.

  6. Susan/DC says:

    The telling is especially annoying when the showing doesn’t support it. For example, I’ve read several books where the hero thinks how smart or witty the heroine is, but then I read further and do not agree with that assessment. Loretta Chase, who helps set the Gold Standard for smart and witty, does not need to have the hero tell me what I’m reading because the dialogue (both interior and exterior) shows me.

  7. willaful says:

    My biggest pet peeve is *complaining* about telling, not showing. ;-) Okay, not really, and I dislike it too, especially when it just seems like lazy writing. (Diana Palmer, I’m looking at you!) BUT I do get irritated when people don’t appreciate an elegant omniscient narrator as a narrative form and complain about it using that term. It’s like they’re just throwing around something they learned in high school English.

    Agree with Susan that nothing is more irritating than being told someone is smart/witty when they’re written as an idiot.

  8. chris booklover says:

    What’s even worse than telling rather than showing is when an author tells us something and shows us the opposite. For instance, a character may be described as smart and behave foolishly, strong and show no backbone or good and behave badly. This often occurs when the author desperately wants us to like a character and does not even bother to acknowledge the more problematic aspects of his or her behavior that the plot requires.

    The other context in which you will often see a disconnect between the author’s narrative and the character’s actions is in romantic relationships. Sometimes we are told that A loves B, but A nevertheless resists a relationship with and a commitment to B for reasons that do not seem satisfactory. In these circumstances it’s difficult to believe in the HEA. Anna Campbell’s Claiming The Courtesan is a good example.

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  10. carol irvin says:

    I experienced my pet peeve with, surprisingly, Connie Willis’s latest, BLACKOUT. This is a very long, detailed, historically nit picking book. All that I could put up with easily. Where I had a hard time was she insisted on having her characters look for one another over the same terrain, again and again. It was so unbelievably boring and repetitious to follow as one character after another got on the train, traveled to the manor house or to London, and scoured the streets and drops looking for the other two. I actually felt as if I were really looking for them myself, I got so irritated. This advanced the plot not one whit. A good editor would have slashed 50-75 pages of this mind numbing drivel right out of the book. Otherwise, the book was fine. I don’t mind its being in two parts. In fact, I need a breather from it. This lack of editing made it too long and thus too slow moving.

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