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Sunday, February 8, 2015


By Mary Adair

Show, don’t tell. Ever heard that? How ‘bout, Show, with a “tell”?

Definition:…Tweeked only a little to fit my point J

A tell in poker(a novel) is a detectable change in a player's (character’s) behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player's(character’s) assessment of his hand (state of mind). A player (reader) gains an advantage (a deeper understanding and interest) if he observes and understands the meaning of another player's (character’s) tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable.

Like most authors, even before I seriously started writing, I loved to read. I didn’t realize it then, but the one most engaging aspect of the story was how I could get to know my favorite character. I liked being able to recognize that little ‘tell’ that clued me in on what he felt or was thinking or what he might do before the characters in the story figured it out. As I realized the small nuances of the author’s skill in showing the story I became more and more intrigued by the art and wanted to try my own hand at story telling.

Here are a couple of example from one of my favorite authors.

From BRAZOS BRIDE  by Caroline Clemmons
Zach rubbed his chin while he thought it over, slapped Joel on the back. "Hate to interrupt this much fun, but it couldn't hurt to cover Micah’s back. Some of his good neighbors might take him being alone as a gift." He leaned his shovel near Micah’s and mounted his horse.

From GABE KINCAID by Caroline Clemons
“My, what a hotbed of crime we circus folk are. Did Zara talk?”

“Not a word.” He [Gabe Kincaid] screwed up his face and tugged at his ear. “Well, none that I can use in mixed company. Matter of fact, I learned a few new curse words. Ben’s [the sheriff] determined to keep at her until he gets sentences that don’t insult his parentage or suggest movement impossible for the human body.”

Sometime, especially if you want to add a little mystery or a bit of humor, you have to build on the ‘tell’. In my story, Passion’s Price, I have a character,William Montgomery, aka, Willy, who, though he tries to present himself with a devil-may-care personality, is actually quite high strung. This is evidenced by his pulling Boading Balls from his pocket and twirling them nervously within his hand, causing an irritating clanking noise at the most inopportune times... 

Excerpts from Passion’s Price

William’s annoying habit tells on him.

Lady Gaylord took the opening to jump in. "We wanted to speak to you about Dawn."
"Yes," Lady Montgomery took up when the other stopped to take a breath. And so the discussion continued as it always did with these two; one starting and the other finishing the thought, leaving Raven with no recourse but to glance from one to the other.
"She is becoming quite popular, dear." Lady Montgomery watched several young men vie for a dance with Dawn.
"We know you are making arrangements to send her home, but she deserves a proper coming out," Lady Gaylord added.
"It would be a shame to send her home so soon," Lady Montgomery finished. "Her father has promised us for years that he would allow her a visit as soon as she was old enough. James knows what good care we have taken of you. This is the perfect time."
"Yes, of course. Just look at her. And to think she arrived just in time to attend this ball in honor of your birthday." Lady Gaylord placed a plump hand to her bosom and sighed.
William no longer pretended indifference to his grandmothers as the Baoding Balls slid more rapidly within his palm, the chiming increasing with his agitation.
"Yes, you must allow her to stay longer, at least until the Golden Lady returns."
"She will occupy a room upstairs. It will remain hers for as long as she likes."
"She likes the room." Lady Gaylord nodded and added, "And she and Sara get along well."
"Yes, they did. Sara can be her personal maid while she is here. I think they will both like that very much."
"Yes, I agree."
Lady Montgomery patted Raven's arm. "And, of course, your room is always ready any time you want to visit, same as Willie's."
Out of habit, William softly choked out, "Don't call me that, Gran."
Lady Gaylord laid her hand over William's. "Put those annoying balls away, dear. They are only going to get you into trouble." 
William blinked in confusion, but did as he was told.
Much later, that little nervous trait causes William a lot of pain.
Lady Montgomery said, "Oh, it's those horrid chiming balls of Willie's. I had just told him they would get him in trouble. Victoria and I have told him time and again to stop playing with the infernal things. He refused to listen and see where it's landed him."
Her confused rambling gave Raven a chance to compose himself, though the content of her jumbled speech distracted him. He walked slowly around the two on the floor and retrieved a mug from the cupboard.
"I don't understand." He looked down at William. "Maybe you should explain."
William looked up at him. "What Gran said is true. Dawn charged in here and kicked my Baoding Balls right out of my hand. I'm not sure how I got here. Um, you'll be glad to hear the Golden Lady is in port."

"Tell the truth." Dawn pressed the blade against William's throat. "Your chiming balls just told on you."

"What's all this talk about balls?" Lady Gaylord said as she entered from the garden, her arms laden with freshly cut flowers.

Buy links for PASSION'S PRICE:


  1. Loved your excerpt and your examples! Showing the tell. Perfect. ☺

  2. I enjoyed your post and your examples. It's fun to give our characters little physical quirks -- "tells" -- isn't it? LOVE the Boading Balls!

  3. Interesting article and good examples. I've read arguments made that it can be a mix. The big thing is don't show and tell-- especially not over and over ;)

    1. Hi Rain,
      thanks for your fun comments. I do love a good show and tell every now and then. :)

  4. Great post on using character quirks as a "tell" to indicate their thoughts. Thanks for using my books as examples!

    1. Hi Caroline, You're welcome! I love all your stories, you are such an inspiration to me.


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