show don't tellReading Like a Writer - Show, Don't Tell

Marg McAlister 

One of the best ways to learn how to improve your style is to get into the habit of reading like a writer. And before you ask - no, it doesn't spoil your enjoyment of a novel. Rather the opposite. You're likely to find yourself giving a little wriggle of excitement, seeing how another writer goes about getting the message across in all sorts of subtle and delightful ways.  

To show you what I mean, I'm going to use an example from Lisa Scottoline's KILLER SMILE (Pan Macmillan, 2004). What we're looking at here is the clever way Lisa shows you, rather than tells you, how her main character feels. Quite a few beginning writers struggle with the advice "show, don't tell". After reading Lisa's scene - which is actually chapter 4 - you'll have a very clear insight into how this works. It's quite a long excerpt, but I think it's valuable to look at the whole scene, rather than a portion of it. 

The setup: In this scene, the protagonist, Mary DiNunzio, is out on yet another blind date set up by her well-meaning friends. Mary's husband Mike has been dead for two years, and her friends and family think it's time she was 'over it' - and that she's 'just not trying'. Right now, she is also totally absorbed in the case on which she's working. 

Excerpt from KILLER SMILE - Chapter 4

Mary eyed her latest blind date, one Jason Pagonis, as he read his menu. He was tall, cool, and reasonably handsome, with close-cropped black hair and brown eyes behind hip little glasses. His smile was pleasant and his manner friendly. He was her age, apparently healthy, with good teeth. He wore a black sport jacket over a black T-shirt, with jeans. In short, there was nothing wrong with him. Mary would have to work hard to find something.  

"So what are you having?" Jason asked, looking up unexpectedly.  

Mary reddened. "Don't know. What's good here?" 

"Everything. I love this place. It's owned by Masaharu Morimoto, one of the Iron Chefs. You've heard of them."  

"Sure." Mary nodded. Her mother was an Iron Chef.  

"I love the design elements here. The aesthetic. It's interesting, isn't it?" 

"I guess." Mary glanced around. She had never seen a restaurant like this except on The Jetsons. The tables and chairs were sculpted of transparent Lucite and lit from within with colored lights, so they actually glowed. Not only that, but the hue of the tables and chairs changed constantly, so at the moment, Mary's chair was blue, turning her butt blue, too. Two minutes ago her butt was green, having segued from a bright yellow. Mary wasn't sure it was a good look for her. 

"The restaurant has an incredible website, too." 

"I bet." Mary was suspicious of restaurants with websites. In fairness she was suspicious in general, tonight. She'd worked the whole day, read approximately 129,373 documents, and still Saint Anthony hadn't found Amadeo's file. Could it really have been taken by the government? And was it behind this stupid decor, too? 

"For an appetizer, I'd start with the shira ae." 

"I always do." 

Jason looked up. "You've eaten here?" 

"No, I was joking around."  

"Oh." Jason shot her a mercy smile, and Mary vowed instantly to stop joking around. Joking Around evinced a Bad Attitude, and she would fall prey to everyone's claim that she Just Wasn't Trying.  

Jason was saying, "Shira ae is asparagus with sesame oil."  

"Mmm." Barf. "What's a good entree?" 

"The ishi yaki burl bop."  

Mary wondered what language Jason was speaking. She squinted at the menu but couldn't read it in the orange haze emanating from the table. "What is whatever you said?" 

"It's yellowtail on rice, and it's great. And for dessert, I'd have the togarashi."  

Mary blinked. 

"Japanese sweet potato cake."  

"Great. I like cake. Cake, I understand. Cake is great." Mary closed her menu, and Jason closed his.  


Now that everything was great, Mary wanted to leave, but she knew she was expected to Make Conversation. "So you went to Stanford Law, with Anne."  

"Yes, how is she?"  

"She's on vacation, in St. Bart's." Having just opened the subject of her fellow associate, Mary realized that she had to close it right away. Anne Murphy was the hottest girl ever to earn a J.D. degree. No guy who was thinking of Anne would want to be in a multi-colored restaurant with anyone else. Mary tried to think of something else to say. "You were on Law Review, right?" 

"Yeah, until I quit to spend more time with my band." 

Mary blinked. The only thing cooler than making Law Review was quitting Law Review. "You had a band? What kind of band?"  

"Beginner Foo Fighters. I still play a little, with a pickup band. On a good day, we sound like Wilco." 



"Got one, thanks," Mary said, but when she peered at the table setting through a now-yellow cloud, only chopsticks were there. "Oh, I guess I don't have one."  

"No. Spoon is an indie rock group. Like Flaming Lips, ever heard of them?" 

"No." Mary didn't know what he was talking about and found her thoughts straying back to Amadeo. Where was his file? Then she stopped her train of thought. It's not a hot date if you find yourself fantasizing about work during it. She was pretty sure it was supposed to be the other way around.  

"How about Vertical Horizon?" 

"Huh? No." Mary was worrying that she would never find anything of Amadeo's, that there was nothing he had left behind. Why did it bother her so much? Then she knew. Because it made it seem like Amadeo didn't matter, and he did. Everybody did. Mike mattered, even though he was gone. She loved him still. She had learned a long time ago that you don't stop loving somebody just because they die.  

"What kind of music do you like, Mary?"


"Do you like music?"  


"What kind?" 

Mary was too preoccupied to think of the right answer, so she told the truth. "Sinatra," she said, and she could see Check, please flutter behind Jason's eyes.  

"Frank Sinatra?" 

The question was so absurd, Mary didn't know what to say.  

"I heard Frank Sinatra sing a duet with Bono, and it was great. Bono is great, don't you think?" 

Bono wishes he were Sinatra. 

"I heard there was a mural of Frank Sinatra, somewhere in town."  

"There is, at Broad and Reed." Finally, something Mary knew about. "It's almost seven stories tall. It's a painting of that photo where he has his jacket slung over his shoulder and his hat is tilted. It's really amazing."  

"I don't know that photo."  

"Oh." Great. Maybe it wasn't a good time for Mary to mention that she was the only member of the Sinatra Social Society under age sixty-five, now that Yolanda had passed.  

They fell silent.  

Mary said, "Mario Lanza is on that mural, too, at Broad and Dickinson." 

"Mario Lanza? Who's he?" 

Ouch. Mary felt stupid for knowing, which seemed somehow ironic. "Mario Lanza was a great tenor and he was born in Philadelphia." She didn't add that Mario Lanza was her mother's favorite. Or that Vita played his classic "Be My Love" on a continuous loop every Sunday, after Mass. These were colorful details Jason Pagonis would never hear. He was missing the best parts of the conversation. "They even have a new museum to him, on Montrose."  

"Montrose, where's that?"  

"In South Philly." 

"I've never heard of him," Jason said, his tone surprised. "When did he sing? Or perform?" 

"In the forties."  

"The nineteen forties?" 

Again, Mary didn't know what to say. Yes, Frank Sinatra. 

"That was a long time ago."  

That's what makes it classic. Mary broke into a sweat. She couldn't relax. She needed a drink but she didn't drink, especially not Japanese sake, which tasted like warm balsamic and came in ceramic thimbles too small for Italian noses.  

"So." Jason cleared his throat. "Anne tells me you're working on a really interesting case. Wanna tell me what it's all about?" 

No. "Sure. It's to get reparations for a man who was interned during World War II and committed suicide."  

Jason's eyes flared. Suicide didn't get guys hot, and Mary tried to recover.  

"I went to the National Archives and saw all these documents that were typed on real typewriters. The documents are from 1941 - " 

Jason laughed softly.  

"What?" Mary asked, interrupting herself, which had to be a first. 

"You have an old soul."  

"I do?" 

"Listen to yourself." Jason paused. "You love old things. Old music. The past."  

Is that bad? Mary wanted to ask, but she couldn't because her throat constricted. She felt tense and, suddenly, sad. Sad that she was here with Jason, and sad that since Mike had died, she didn't belong with anyone. She had stopped fitting in anywhere. She wasn't a member even of her own generation; somehow she felt older and younger at the same time.  

Mary thought unaccountably of the Venn diagrams she had studied in grade school, and how they overlapped. But she didn't overlap anybody, anymore. She remained in her own circle, and she couldn't seem to change that, turn it around, or make it better in any way. All she knew was that she wished with every cell of her being that she could go home, take out her contacts, and lie down.  

"You two ready to order?" asked the waitress, appearing at the illuminated table.

 == End of Excerpt == 

Okay. A long excerpt, as I said... but you can see why I wanted to quote all of it. That last line is perfect, coming after Mary's heartfelt wish that she could just go home and lie down. We know that she's got to sit through the rest of the meal before she can do that.  

What did the author "show" us in this scene? 

That Mary is making an effort to go out and socialize because her friends and family want her to, not because she wants to.  

That even though her date is well-dressed and good-looking, and she feels that she has to go through the motions, nothing about this date works for her. Mary finds her thoughts drifting to the case she's working on, rather than becoming involved in the conversation. She doesn't like the decor (her date "loves the design elements - the aesthetic"); she doesn't understand the menu (her date loves the place and the food); she likes music from the 1940s (her date talks about bands she's never heard of).  

Finally, she realizes that since her beloved husband died, she doesn't 'fit' anywhere. Her sudden thoughts about Venn diagrams summarize her feelings of desperation and loneliness perfectly. Then she has to sit there and endure the rest of the meal with someone she is never likely to see again.

Notice that the author doesn't just 'tell' us all of this. She filters everything through Mary's thoughts and emotions. We 'become' Mary, and see the restaurant through her eyes. As Mary, we suffer through a conversation that very quickly makes it apparent that she has nothing in common with her date.  

By reading like a writer, any author can analyze a scene to see what makes it work. It's possible to learn a whole lot about your craft through this simple (and enjoyable) strategy.

© Marg McAlister


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