Show More Than You Tell

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For many writing teachers and students, “show, don’t tell” has become cliche. But cliches become cliches because they are rooted in truth. The lesson below is one of the first I ever created for the WriteAtHome curriculum, but it’s just as important today as it ever was. As common as the show-don’t-tell advice has become, young writers still don’t consistently apply it. It is still the issue I address most often, especially with SAT essays. If you are a developing young writer, or if you are the parent or teacher of one, please pass on this lesson. Grasping this concept is an essential step in growing from a good writer to a great one.

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Once upon a time, show and tell was a regular part of elementary school. Kids would bring in a pet hamster, a baseball card collection, a softball-sized wad of chewed gum, or some other item that was interesting or meaningful to them.  They would stand proudly before the class and tell us all about it.  The academic benefits of this exercise are a little elusive, but it was a lot of fun.

Good writers know all about show and tell. More specifically, they know that, in writing, it’s almost always better to show than to tell.  Here’s an example.

Read the two variations on the same event below.

AI fumbled with the key and the doorknob, murmuring under my breath about the idiot who turned off the porch light before I got home. I had three plastic bags of groceries in my left hand and a fourth in my teeth, so when I finally managed to unlock the door, I had to lean against it with my shoulder to push it open. As I stumbled in, lights exploded, and an invisible crowd roared “Surprise!” My heart thumped like a punch to the back of my ribs, and my mouth fell open, dropping six cans of chicken broth on the linoleum.

BAfter a night of grocery shopping, I arrived home tired and grumpy. When I opened the door, however, my attitude quickly changed. Several of my friends had prepared a surprise party in my honor. I was shocked.

Which of the above is better writing?

Why is A so much more evocative and interesting? Why does it draw us so much more completely into the scene and enable us to feel what the narrator is feeling? Several things come to mind, but the greatest difference is that A shows the scene while B merely tells about it. Notice that in paragraph B, the writer tells how he feels (e.g., tired, grumpy, shocked). In paragraph A, however, he shows us how he feels (e.g., “murmuring under my breath,” “heart thumped,” “mouth fell open”) without feeling the need to explain.

That’s what good writing does. It gives some credit to the reader.  No one wants to have everything explained. It’s boring. It’s almost always more fun to have a picture painted for us so vividly that the meaning needs no explanation. You don’t wonder what the narrator was feeling in paragraph A—it’s just as vividly clear as it is in B, but we are permitted to discover it for ourselves.

Remember that writing is an art—just like painting, sculpture or photography.  The difference is that visual artists create images using paint, clay, stone, or photographic film, while writers use words. Of course writers can do far more than just create images—we can inform, explain, and persuade as well. Good writing, however, usually leaves some kind of visual image with its reader.

Look for ways to paint pictures as you write. Stop every now and then in the writing process and make sure you are not telling when you should be showing.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Rue Paul
    Rue Paul11-20-2013

    Don’t quite know where to post this, so I am posting it here. I just took your quiz “100 Words to Make You Sound Smart.” It seems as if you do not have the correct option listed for the word “Capricious.” None of the choices even match the definition you have linked to under the “Brush Up” option of the test! Can you comment on this please?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-21-2013

      I’ll check it out and get back to you Rue.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko11-21-2013

      You are correct, RP, the answer “compulsive” was mistyped. It should have been “impulsive.” Thanks for pointing out the error. It has been corrected.

  2. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen11-20-2013

    Wholeheartedly agree! As a writing teacher of over 30 years, I find the common theme in each classroom of “telling” too much and “showing” too little.

    I will certainly use your crystal clear example in my classroom (while giving you and Write at Home the credit.)

    Many thanks, Brian.

  3. K. Singleton
    K. Singleton11-20-2013

    I find that is a problem that I have. I want to get the story out so quickly that I forget that the right details can build the image so much better.

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