Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

When you're writing about a character's thoughts aren't you always telling instead of showing?

The distinction between showing and telling is important. Telling about a character’s vanity, for example, isn’t nearly as precise as showing it in her starched skirt and her meticulously curled bangs. Describing a boss as angry doesn’t capture his nature as effectively as showing him holler at his assistant for bringing coffee that is too hot. Showing allows the reader to make conclusions and draw interpretations from concrete details. (For an even more detailed explanation of the difference between showing and telling, check out Q&A 2.)

Thoughts cannot be observed or experienced by the senses, which can make showing them seem complicated—or downright impossible. But this works on the same basic principal as showing action, dialogue, or appearance. If you tell the reader about the thought, that’s “telling,” if you let the thought unfold for the reader, that’s “showing.”

Take this example from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” a story in which Shukumar and his wife Shoba have grown distant since a miscarriage:

He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. He thought of how long it had been since she looked into his eyes and smiled, or whispered his name on those rare occasions they still reached for each other’s bodies before sleeping.

This glimpse into Shukumar’s thoughts reveals the nature of their distance. It is certainly more dynamic than a line that tells: “He thought they had grown apart and didn’t have the time or intimacy they once had.” And it’s more authentic, as well. We don’t think in summaries or conclusions, so much as images, memories, and impressions.

A character’s imagination can also be a vivid way to show thought. F. Scott Fitzgerald does this in The Great Gatsby when Nick, the first person narrator, imagines Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss:

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars . . . So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.

Nick wasn’t present for the kiss but he’s heard Gatsby talk about it. Nick imagines it in such vivid detail that the reader can see the magic of the moment.