A Lesson In Show, Don’t Tell.

Show, Don’t Tell! Many of you have heard this old writing adage countless times but, I’m sure there’s a good bit of you who haven’t. For those of you who need a refresher, or it’s your first time hearing the phrase, read on. I’ve decided I’d like to try something different with this post, so, in the spirit of it’s meaning, I will give you a little story in hopes of showing you the meaning behind this common phrase, rather than telling you.

 

Flickr photo by user jonl

Flickr photo by user jonl

I was first introduced to the idea of “Show, Don’t Tell” many years ago in my first creative writing class. Until that moment, I had never given much thought to the negative consequences of blandly explaining away a story.

After spending a week working on a piece that I was really proud of, I strolled into class, head held high, and eagerly awaited my opportunity to share it with the other students. My turn arrived, I stood confidently before my peers and started reading.

“Timothy had spent his morning drinking coffee and looking out the window. Every sound he heard made him jump.” I read.

No sooner did my lips purse to utter the third sentence, was I stopped by the teacher.

“Hold up…stop…stop…what the hell are you doing?” he asked. His lazily combed over wisps of hair betrayed the aggravation in his tone as he shook his head violently from side to side.

I don’t remember my exact response, but it was something unintelligible and littered with stutter. In mere moments, my mouth became a sponge, quickly absorbing every bit of moisture. I felt the room cringe as my glued together lips parted; a sound like torn paper. “I was just reading my story.”

“Your story is boring.” he said. His quickfire retort slapped my creative sensibility, open-palmed and directly in the heart. “You’re only two sentences in, and you have missed a thousand opportunities to help me exercise my mind.”

Photo by Flickr user ben110

Photo by Flickr user ben110

I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, but I stepped aside as he quickly strode to the front of the class. “I don’t want you to tell me the story.” he said. He directed his words at the class, but they screamed in my direction. “Does anyone here understand what I’m getting at?”

The collective brains of my fellow students hummed inaudibly as we struggled to explain his lesson before it was given.

“Instead of telling me that ‘Timothy had spent his morning drinking coffee and looking out the window.’ you should be showing me.” he said.

Pivoting on his heel, he turned. “Let’s write this over right now. Give me that first sentence again, but tell me something more detailed, I need to see the story.”

My chest heaved slowly outwards, and as it fell I blurted out, “Timothy stood impatiently at his window, drinking his coffee.” The words tripped over my tongue and fell on the floor.

“It’s a start,” he replied, “I need more…what is he seeing out the window? Is he drinking his coffee right at this moment? Is the coffee even important? If it is, I need to be shown how. Again, show me more.”

I felt the stares of the class slicing holes in my skin as they waited for me to stumble through the lesson. “Timothy tapped his foot impatiently, taking a sip of his coffee and watching cars pass by his front window.”

“Better, give me more.” The teachers encouragement was warming in an odd and unexplainable way. He smiled through his usually thick frown.

Photo by Flickr user Felipe Venâncio

Photo by Flickr user Felipe Venâncio

Thrusting my shoulders back and attempting to exude a little more confidence, I continued. “Timothy’s foot shook noticeably as his toes made repetitive contact with the old wood floor. Peering through the tiniest gap of open curtain, he watched cars pass by, sloppily sipping from his coffee cup.”

“Much, much, much better. Now I am starting to see this scene. Now I have a reason to continue reading. Don’t stop now. Try the second sentence.” he said. Leaning back on his desk, his palms melded with its sharp edges.

Taking a brief moment, I cranked the rusty gears of my left brain, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as Timothy. I briefly lost myself in his living room, drank his coffee and stood nervously at his window. My palms spewed liquid panic as his front door shook.

Photo by Flickr user dianecordell

Photo by Flickr user dianecordell

“The slow creak of the broken-hinged screen door angered him as it cried wolf over and over again.”  I said. The teacher looked anxious for more so I continued. ” His hairs stood on edge, his unconscious filtering every miniscule noise through a lens of fear and frustration.”

“Brilliant!” the teacher screamed. Pushing off from the desk he walked over and placed his cold palm on my wrist, grasping lightly and lifting my arm into the air as if to show me off like a prized fighter. “This folks, is how it’s done. Show me, don’t tell me. Not only is telling boring, it makes for an awfully short story.”

He dropped my hand, and it fell heavy at my side. “Now I want you all to go home and rewrite your stories. I don’t even want to hear from the writer you were when you wrote them, I want to hear from the writer you are now.”

 

It’s easy to see from the example I’ve provided, how the idea of showing a reader your story has a far greater and more thought provoking effect than could ever be achieved from the simple act of systematically telling me the basic events. In keeping with this idea, I’d like to offer a few more sentences to drive the point home. If I were to tell you the story of me and my interaction in creative writing class, rather than show you, it would look something like this:

“I learned about show, don’t tell, in creative writing class. One day I went in and read one of my stories and my teacher said it wasn’t good. He didn’t like that I was telling the story and not showing it. He worked on it with me for a few minutes and then made us go home and rewrite our stories.”

There’s no meat to the tell. It lacks substance and feeling. It’s devoid of every element that makes reading enjoyable. Not to mention, where is the fun in writing something so forward and telling. Personally, I get heaps of joy from that moment when you can sit back and reread, over and over, a beautifully crafted sentence of your own doing.

What do you think? Which story would you feel compelled to read. The show or the tell?

The act of telling information is not something that can be 100% avoided. Occasionally there are moments when you have no choice but to reveal information in some form of telling manner. These situations are acceptable, but generally, if I can’t visualize the story, if I can’t see the details in you words, you aren’t connecting with me, and isn’t that what writing is all about, connection?

Write on Writers! !

For those of you who already learned the Show, Don’t Tell lesson before, share your stories in the comment section below. I’d love to hear them!

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