Advanced showing vs. telling: “to”

You’ve probably seen the admonishments to “show” rather than “tell” in your work. Showing the character doing something brings the reader into the action, while describing the action (telling) turns the reader into a passive observer. Once you master catching the egregious cases you can move on to the next level, the very subtle instances of telling.

One such instance is a particular use of the word “to.” Take the following sentence:

Martha crept towards the water’s edge to avoid waking the monster.

On first blush this line reads perfectly fine: we’re right there with Martha as she creeps along. However, there’s subtle telling going on in the prepositional phrase beginning with “to.” Here the text is telling us why Martha is doing her creeping rather than showing it. Again, this is subtle, and can be hard to catch. One trick to rooting out these kinds of tells is preceding “to” with “in order”:

Martha crept down to the water’s edge [in order] to avoid waking the monster.

Now it’s clear the phrase is telling: the writer is explaining Martha’s intention in creeping down to the water’s edge. OK, now that we’ve caught it, how do we make it show instead? Here are a couple solutions for this sentence:

Martha crept down to the water’s edge. Hopefully she’d avoid waking the monster.


Martha crept down to the water’s edge. Was she close to waking the monster?

On your polishing passes, look for occurrences of the word “to” and put them to the test. If you’re telling in those spots, rewrite to show instead. Though subtle, your changes will keep your readers fully engaged in the action.

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