Editing Sex Scenes Taught Me About ‘Show vs. Tell’

Here are a few highlights of Tanya Egan GIbson’s presentation to the California Writers Club–Marin on Sunday, January 22. Tanya is author of How to Buy a Love of Reading, a developmental and line editor, and former CWC-Marin board member.

CWC-January“Show versus tell is on my mind a lot,” Tanya says at the start. As an editor, she says, she reads a lot of manuscripts that get the show and tell mix wrong. For example, the author shows dalmatians because she likes dalmatians, but the book is about flowers. Or the author tells about someone thinking about their dead parent — by telling, the author leaves the reader cold. Showing that in scene allows for more emotional richness.

Extraordinary moments need to be shown, she says, ordinary moments do not. One of the best ways to bore your reader is a step-by-step showing of ordinary moments.

She walked up the steps, put her keys in the door, walked into her foyer.

Unless something unusual is going to happen, like a yeti eating her when she opens the door, or the door is unlocked and it’s supposed to be locked, we don’t need to see those details.

She reminds us that readers have read a lot of books already, and they know that when you’re showing something, it’s going to be meaningful. Or should be.

This is especially true with dialogue. No one wants to hear your boring conversation. Dialogue stands in for a longer conversation. You show the highlights, the nugget, not the whole thing.

Tanya edits romance novels, and editing sex has taught her a great deal about show versus tell. The general rule in contemporary romance is that the good stuff is shown.

TanyaPeople are reading these romance books because they want to see the erotic parts. But how much do you show? “I hate repetition,” Tanya says. She doesn’t want to read the same sex scene five times. So there has to be variation. “In romances, people do it many, many times in one night, but you don’t want to show all of that to the reader.”

That’s where telling come in. Here’s an example: “Last night had been everything she’d hoped.” And then you segue back into now and show what happens in the morning.

Another mistake authors make is showing scenes that happen to peripheral characters. It’s not that you can’t do it, but the act of showing elevates the scene’s importance, telegraphs that is going to come to something.

She led us in some writing exercises, where we wrote about mundane activities like taking out the garbage. That’s when I stopped taking notes.


Our next meeting, on February 26, features Amelia Beamer, author of the Loving Dead — one of Barnes & Noble’s top ten zombie novels of the past decade — speaking on “Creating Narrative Tension.” Hope you can join us.