Show vs Tell: The Pain Lexicon

Now that November is over and your NaNo is finished, it’s time to move on to the next step…QUERYING!

Uhh…wait. That’s not right. Once you’ve taken a step back from drafting your NaNo and given yourself a moment to clear your head, it’s time to edit your WIP until it shines.

For this mini blog series, Lauren Spieller, Charlie N. Holmberg, and I have put together a few (hopefully helpful) tips on how to pump up your writing. Our goal is to help you avoid a few simple pitfalls when describing characters who are experiencing pain.

To kick us off on Show vs Tell, a quote from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The idea behind “show, don’t tell” is the thought that, believe it or not, readers are pretty darn smart. They are very capable of taking cues and figuring things out on their own. As an example: when a character frowns, most everyone will know (or assume) that character is feeling something negative. Our goal is to take out the moments when we write, “Suzie is mad,” and change them to, “Suzie frowned.” Though, of course, this is very simplified.

Often, there are simple clues that hint that you might be telling instead of showing. Scour your writing for the following words. If you find them, there’s about a 90% chance that you are telling something that would be much more powerful if you would show it instead.

  • thought
  • knew
  • wondered
  • realized
  • decided
  • wished
  • hoped
  • smell
  • see
  • hear
  • feel

Also check for forms of to be (is, are, was, were…), which are clue words that you might be using a passive voice instead of an active voice.

Instead of this these weak words, as writers, we want to choose strong words! Words that have pop, that allow a reader to experience the story along with your characters. This is exactly why Charlie, Lauren, and I created the Pain Lexicon (found in a link at the bottom of this post).

Since this post is supposed to be directed toward PAIN, here’s an example of using “telling” words to describe what a character might feel if they are in pain:

Suzie realized her stomach hurt as pain ran through it.

In the sentence above, we know Suzie’s stomach hurts, so writing the word “pain” becomes redundant. Also, do you see the clue word “realized”? Take it out! If it’s happening to your character, they won’t have to “realize” anything—their response to it will be automatic.

To help make this moment more clear for a reader and show instead of tell, think about what else might be happening to Suzie’s body: is she sweating, or experiencing shortness of breath? Is she bent over and clutching her abdomen? Or perhaps she’s rubbing her skin, trying to make the feeling go away. To fix this sentence, I grabbed a few words off the lexicon: clench, wheeze, and lurch. So, “Suzie’s stomach hurt as pain ran through it,” turns into,

Suzie clenched her fists and wheezed, doubling over as her stomach lurched.

When you show, your reader will be intimately drawn into your character’s experiences, rather than being on the outside. If we look at the science behind storytelling, it seems that with good showing, our brains can’t actually tell the difference between reading about an experience and having it happen first hand.

If you are working on this very thing in your writing, the next time your character has a tummy ache, is shot, or falls and breaks an arm, I challenge you to forbid  yourself to write the word pain. Try it! Use the Pain Lexicon to identify words that pop and zing. It might be difficult at first, but the end product will be powerful writing that your reader will be able to experience right along with your character.

What tricks do you use when trying to show rather than tell? I’d love to hear about any struggles you might have, or if you’re especially good at this!

Pain Lexicon

Visit Charlie’s website for her post: The Pain Lexicon: Using Physical and Emotional Descriptors in “Painful” Passages.
Visit Lauren’s website for a post: The Pain Lexicon: Let’s Make It Hurt.

Here are some follow up posts that might help if you still need clarification on this:
 Don’t Tell Me Why–by Janice Hardy
Show, Don’t Tell–by Grammar Girl
In Six Seconds–by Chuck Palahnuik 


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