Showing Rather than Telling, Submission Guidelines, and Getting Releases from Resources


by BobbiNew Ask the book doctor logoe Christmas

Q: My new editor is fussy about the “show, not tell” axiom. Everything has to be as if it is played out on stage.

If I have a character experiencing internal frustration, but he doesn’t want people around him to know it, how would I explain it? I want to say, “John felt his heart race and he clinched his fists while he struggled to sit quietly in his chair,” or something like that, but that’s telling, not showing. Any thoughts would be helpful.

A: Your editor knows what he or she is talking about when saying, “Everything has to be as if it is played out on a stage.”

Bobbie ChristmasYou are on the right track as a way to show, rather than tell, the character’s frustration by what he does. It would be wrong to tell it this way: “John felt frustrated and he could hear his heart beating heavily.” A sentence such as that one would tell, rather than show, because onlookers would not be able to see what was going on. To show, rather than tell, think of how a scene in a movie would show his frustration. Consider a rewrite something like this:

John touched a pulse point on his neck but quickly withdrew his hand and looked around with wild eyes. He shifted in his seat, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly through pursed lips. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. After jamming the cloth into his pocket, he shook his head, clinched his fists, looked from side to side, and exhaled again.
If you saw a man doing all the above, you would know he was in distress, as would readers, if they read about the man’s actions. The key is to describe the visual, visible images, and your writing will show, rather than tell.

Q: When the submission guidelines ask for the plot summary, is it supposed to be added to the cover letter or sent as a separate document?

A: A cover letter normally does include a brief one-paragraph summary of the plot, but sometimes submission guidelines want a longer summary that is separate. Read the guidelines carefully to uncover the answer. If the guidelines say to send a cover letter complete with a plot summary, then the summary is part of the cover letter. If the guidelines say to send a cover letter plus a summary, the two would be separate documents, even if the separate document simply repeats the paragraph that summarizes the plot in the cover letter. Remember the cover letter should also include the title, genre, and word count of the book as well.

Q: I have contacted the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts and joined for one year to have a good source of information. They have me believing I should get releases for interviews, photographs, letters, etc. It also appears that anyone I name in the book, such as “The shortstop, Joe Blow, had two hits” should sign a release.

The lawyer said I would have to get an attorney to look at everything. I can’t afford it.
I said that I didn’t see how a nonfiction book could be written. She laughed.
In your books, what did you do about releases? There is a formal way to look at all this to be sure that no one can come back on a writer, but there also must be a realistic way to go about this.

I will not be able to use the old team photographs I have located because of the right of privacy. The applicable laws depend on the state in which those people now live, though, and how can I possibly contact all of them?

All this is not possible to do. This book may be ended before I get started.

A: What a dilemma! The problem with attorneys is that they are intent on covering every single possibility, and as you can see, the project can get out of hand.

I haven’t run into the same problems with my books, because I am not writing about anyone else, just writing about writing. I can answer for how I handle magazine articles, though. In that case, when I speak to resources and get information, I quote them and explain who they are and why they are expert resources. For example (and this is entirely made up): Joe Blow, who invented bubble gum, says, “I was fooling around with a formula for toothpaste, and instead discovered I could blow bubbles with the stuff.”

Without seeing the book or the content and without being an attorney myself, I can’t know for sure if the same thing applies, but it seems to me, as an unqualified lay person, that if someone played a ballgame that was visible to the public, you can report the game in a book. After all, it could have been reported by any newspaper reporter watching the game, and the reporter didn’t have to get releases, so why should you? I do understand that photographs are the property of the photographer, but most will give permission for use either for free or a small fee and acknowledgment of who took the photo. I often see photos that say “Used by permission of [name of entity that owns the rights to the photo].”

Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at


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