The Top Five Mistakes Young Writers Make: Informalities and Show Vs Tell [2-3/5]

February 03, 2012

2 & 3: Informalities + Show Vs. Tell


So you're a teenager writing about teenagers. Awesome! 

All novels require an inherent level of "formality"—and be it internal dialogue or notes passed between characters during class, your punctuation and phrasing must be on point. The fact you're writing about teenagers does not change this!

     • Bad: "Gosh you're soooo stupid I can't believe you just said that urgh get a life."
     • Good: "I can't believe you just said that. Get a life, man!"

     • Bad: he's sooooooo stupid gosh I seriously don't get what you see in him
     • Good: Honestly, he's kind of stupid. I don't get what you see in him.

Although teenagers do grunt, groan, and say not-so-intelligent-sounding mishmashes of syllables in real life, you need to elevate their diction for the purposes of a novelincluding the character's internal monologue

Eliminate elongated filler utterances such as "soooo," "urgh," and "grrrr." If you absolutely must use them, use their shortest form in italics (i.e. urgh versus urrghhhh). Common acronyms (such as BTW and LOL) are fine for your character to use in written correspondence.

     • Bad: Urggggh this guy's such a creep, why can't he take a hint.
     • Good: Urgh. This guy's such a creep. Why can't he take a hint?

     • Bad: Hey we should get pizza after skool also did you hear about the party unite 
     • Good: Want to get pizza after school? (BTW, are we going to Miranda's party tonight?)

     • Bad: She's soooo annoying, I wish she'd just leave me alone already
     • Good: She's horribly annoying. I wish she'd leave me alone already.

Even if the medium of communication is informal or the character is not particularly bright, it's never an excuse for sloppy writing!

Show Vs. Tell

As writers, we hear this all the time—and we hear it for a reason. Being told is boring. I don't want to be told Katniss is brave; I want to see it. 

I want to find concrete reasons to believe it.

If you flat-out tell something about a character, it won't be enough—your reader will still want to validate your claim. 

Telling the reader "Samantha is brave" is meaningless. What makes Samantha brave? What has she done to prove she's brave? 

Let the reader come to that conclusion on their own. Don't tell us she's brave—let her show us she's brave. Make her step up to the plate during a fight between friends, or let her get stabbed to save a weaker friend. Showing her bravery holds more weight. When a reader sees your character's bravery or cowardice in action, it's more believable, allowing them to draw stronger conclusions about the character. 

In a way, showing rather than telling mimics the natural scheme of how we interact with real people. We don't walk up to someone and say "I'm Garrett and I'm shy, caring, and like to scratch my head when I'm in distress." Instead, we observe these qualities in people as we interact with them.

Let your reader interact with your characters. Make them real. Let them show their faults and prowesses on their own. If you're telling the reader, think of it as you introducing your best friend to someone in the way I introduced Garrett. Awkward, right?

Let's take a look at the following example from a young writer's story.

"Thump ththump thump" the rain against the window pulled me in with its hypnotic beat and steady movement it for the third time today. So beautiful and soothing, even more so when you know the life it gives to all the trees and conecte…… "Miss Spritiusus" Mrs. Greenwell called out jolting me back into real life. It seemed I had passed the whole class staring out that window Dam it. "Hmm" I said tired and stupid from the rain. Then I realized what was going on "the answer Zoë, what is the answer?" she said. Before I could say anything Kyler Venton spoke up, now there was going to be trouble. "Why should she tell you, you should know you’re the teacher.” he said jokingly. I guess today was evidently one of her good days if it wasn't she would have popped like a zit. Trying really hard not to piss her off I said "tomorrow is my birthday cant you give me a break for once" which I shortly after added a small please. "Yes... tomorrow but for once Zoë" she said mimicking my tone "pay attention".

This young writer had the right idea content-wise. However, you'll notice that beyond the formatting issues, there's another level of readability that is violated here. It is difficult to describe, so I will start us off with a few before/after examples. The following examples are excerpted from the critiques I emailed back to the writer.

Show Vs. Tell—Implications

• Original: Before I could say anything Kyler Venton spoke up, now there was going to be trouble. "Why should she tell you, you should know you’re the teacher.” he said jokingly.

• Edited: “Why should she tell you? You should know, seeing as you’re the teacher,” Kyler said jokingly.

Why is there going to be trouble? 

Think back to my note about Zoe cowering in her chair. If she is not afraid of her teacher, then there isn’t a good reason to say that there would be trouble. The reader can decide if there will be trouble or not depending on the teacher’s reaction. If the teacher responded with

“The door is that way,”

The reader will understand, without you needing to tell them explicitly, that there is trouble. Conversely, if the teacher were to say

True,” she said. “However, I want to know if you know the material.”

The reader would realize that the teacher is compassionate and patient. Again, this goes back to character exposition, aka show versus tell.

Show Vs. Tell—Appearance

My general rule of thumb is this: if your main character already knows the character who's being described, dish the description out slowly like in the examples above. If they're meeting for the first time, a laundry list may be appropriate opportunity to reveal their first impressions of the new character.

Here's an example where the main character (Zoe) had a previous relationship with the character who's being described (Kyler).

    • “You know what I’m talking about,” he repeated, but more insistently this time. His dark brown eyes bore into mine.
    • Jerry threw the wad of paper behind him. It brushed past Kyler’s ridiculously shaggy auburn hair and hit me dead in the face.

You don't have to introduce a character's appearance all at once—because the characters already know each other, it usually wouldn't make sense to describe the character as if they're meeting for the first time.

In Kyler's case, consider dishing out his description piecemeal.


     Kyler was short and had brown eyes and auburn hair. He was kind of rude and wasn’t very smart.

“What’s up, brother?” Kyler said as he approached his exceptionally tall teammate. The contrast made him look even shorter than he was to begin with.
“Nothin’, man. Have you passed that test yet, or are you still disqualified from the team?”
“Man, I tried,” Kyler said. He dug his fingers into his tangled auburn hair and pulled at it. “But I couldn’t do it, you know? Studied and everything, but no cigar. Still out.”

Show Vs. Tell—Personality Traits

I posed this suggestion to another young writer about her story. (From what I understand, her main character, Cameron, is supposed to be tough and independent from the get-go.)


“Everyone here?” my mom asked, I looked at her face, and it was creased in worry.
Well, we're on the run,it happens.
“Daddy?” Mallory asked, “Where are we going?” She was only ten. I wish she never lived this life, that the rest of us lived. I mean, gee she's only ten!
She twirled her finger in her short curly blond hair and stared at my father with really beautiful green eyes.
I grabbed her hand and got down, so we were eye level.
Somewhere safe Mally. Somewhere safe.” She smiled, a hopeful smile, and started walking dragging me along.


“Is everyone OK?” Mom asked. We each nodded in turn.
 “Daddy?” Mallory asked, the second youngest of us kids. “Where're we going?”
She twirled her short blonde hair with her finger and stared at our father. The curls, which had become frizzy and disheveled from a half night of sleep, were plastered around her face, and her pretty green eyes peeked through the mess of tangles.
I brushed her hair away from her eyes and took her little hand in mine[KM1] .
Somewhere safe, Mally. Somewhere safe.”
She smiled, and once we pulled ourselves from the bushes, I took her hand again and guided her through the dark.

 [KM1]She's already crouched down.

I feel this scene is an excellent opportunity for Cameron to establish herself as protective and a leader. Because she's already supposed to possess strong leader-like qualities, her interaction with her sister is an important defining moment. Cameron should guide her sister, not the other way around. (A strong leader is not dragged along by a child!)

Until next time!



  1. Thanks for sharing this! I will defiantly use this.

  2. Oh My Gosh! It's my novel! :D Thanks for the tips Kat! I'll definatly use them! :-D


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