Show don’t tell and character POV

By Greg Turnquist

Greg L. Turnquist worked on the Spring team for over thirteen years and is a senior staff technical content engineer at Cockroach Labs. He was the lead for Spring Data JPA and Spring Web Services. He wrote Packt's best-selling title, Learning Spring Boot 2.0 2nd Edition, and its 3rd Edition follow-up along many others.

March 22, 2014

undergroundersAmong the great feedback I’m getting from a couple generous beta readers, I’m getting a real primer on show-don’t-tell.

In case you haven’t heard, there is an old mantra in writing. Instead of having the characters enunciate what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling, i.e. telling, you instead show what’s happening. There are many reasons for this approach. It often connects the reader more intimately with what’s happening. They are more plugged in as if they were there, instead of hearing it retold through the character after the fact.

I’ve worked hard to shoot for that, but being so close to the work, I didn’t realize how many times I veered back into telling and got away from showing the action. Look at this example.

She heard some scurrying motions. She looked around, trying to see what their unit leader was going to do. “Are we going to back them up? How many are there?” As she looked to the front of their wave, she could see three of the men communicating with hand signals. “Blast, I wish I had paid attention better so I could know what they were saying.” One of them had pulled out a small tablet and was scribbling marks on it.

“She heard” puts distance between the reader and what’s happening. Try this instead.

Booted feet scraped the tunnel floors, scurrying to the front of the group. “Are we going to back them up? How many are there?” Three of the men at the front of their wave furiously exchanged hand signals. “Blast, I wish I had paid attention better so I could know what they were saying.” One had drawn out a darktablet and hastily scratched on it with a stylus while pointing back towards Base. The second man nodded. The third shook his head.

Which one draws you in and makes you feel like your really there?

Character POV

In my experience, a side effect of telling and not showing is that I was letting the POV (point of view) slip in various scenes. There are different ways to write such as 1st Person POV, 3rd Person POV, Omniscient POV, and others. 1st Person is “I saw. I walked. I whatever.” 3rd Person is “Clarel saw. Clarel walked. Clarel whatever.”

Whether you write in 1st Person or 3rd Person, it’s quite common that in any given scene, you are only able to know what one character knows, observes, hears, etc. Omniscient lets you know everything, but few people seem to use this one. It can get confusing as you bounce around between different characters. In a few of my scenes, I errantly floated between two or three characters. It was hard for my beta reader to track that.

Why am I talking about POV and show-don’t-tell? Because by focusing on show-don’t-tell, it forces me to only show what can be seen from the scene’s POV. It intensifies that character’s POV which tightens things up for the reader. I feel this leads to better action and suspense.

Now as I skim certain scenes, I can see how various parts are more sloppy than others. As part of the my follow up to these critiques, I am going through an tagging each scene with the character’s POV. It’s obvious that certain scenes were written across a few days, and I lost focus of whose POV it was. My goal is that by sifting through the manuscript and cleaning up POV with show-don’t-tell, it will improve the story tenfold.

Verb tenses

Another smaller item I’ll have to evaluate is past present and past perfect tenses. In general you need to pick the tense of your story and stick to it. Books are commonly written in past tense. But there’s more than one past tense. “She was pausing” vs. “She paused”. This is past progressive vs. simple past tense. Simple past slims things down and doesn’t sound so tedious.

I try to avoid past perfect (like “She had paused.”) because it’s not only tedious, it also denotes something that happened in the past before something else in the past. The only time I use it is for flashbacks in my story. This way, the flashbacks are clear and easy to spot. It also fits in with the concept that a flashback occurred BEFORE the “current” past tense.

On a side note, I have been studying German for about three months. While exercising my usage of English past tense, I am also learning about German past tense. Here are a couple types. “Ich habe das Buch gelesen” literally means “I have the book read”. Rearranged for Enlglish grammar, it translates to “I have read the book”.

An alternative is “Ich las das Buch” which means “I read the book. These are past perfect and simple past. In German, they are often described as spoken past and written past (or story past according to my native German high school teacher), because when you are talking to someone you use the former, and when writing a story you use the latter.

Suffice it to say, using the right tense is important in any language and if you mix tenses willy nilly in your manscript, any potential agent or editor will cringe and dismiss you. You will appear amateur if you don’t focus on using tenses correctly and consistently. Scrubbing your manuscript can wear you out, but it’s important work.

As I get more and more feedback, I’m deeply grateful. Happy writing!


  1. Dave

    “Ich *bin* nach Nashville gegangen” was grammatically correct when I learnt German. Also, it literally means to a German, “I have walked to Nashville” (implying you are either quite close or a strong walker). Suggest “fahren”, or depending on how you actually got there, maybe “mit dem Zug fahren”.

    • Greg Turnquist

      Yeah, I forgot about motion verbs. What I’ve learned is that “Ich bin gegangen” implies you walked. “Ich habe gegangen” suggests you walked there, but came back afterwards.

      But my focus was on comparing verb tenses and the effect they have on your writing. So I think I’ll edit the post to avoid “moving” verbs and pick something else.


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