Why I hate writing, Part 7: Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The advice is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead, and applies to non-fiction writing too. Source: Wikipedia

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life. I always knew whether or not I liked certain authors, I just couldn’t tell you why or why not. It wasn’t until I started working with a real writer, when he began sharing some of the rules he’d learned through research and experience that I started to identify the reasons why certain writing didn’t appeal to me.

One of my biggest pet peeves in writing is the breaking of the “Show, don’t tell rule”. Granted, this rule primarily applies to fiction, but I still think all writers should keep this in mind when addressing their readers. It’s the whole “Give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish” principle.  Okay, maybe not that exactly, but close enough…

For example:

Tell: My daschund  is a jerk because he wakes me up to pee.

Show: Almost every night as my eyelids begin to droop and the book in my hand begins its descent into the space between the pillows, I hear the low, guttural growl coming from the end of the bed. What was moments before a perfectly still mound of black and brown fur is now two beady brown eyes staring down its considerable snout at me. “Outside?”, I ask as the dog bounds off the bed into the night.

For the sake of economy of words, the tell is the best choice. But hopefully you get a clearer picture of why my dog is a jerk from the show.

Got it? Good.

For me, the best thing about the show rather than the tell is the opportunity for the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the the blanks. It’s not often when a police report via a news story allows the reader that kind of freedom, so when my friend Randy emailed me the following clipping, I had to share it:

I realize the image is probably too small to read, so allow me to transcribe the words of the reporter:

Orville Smith, a store manager for Best Buy in Augusta, Ga., told police he observed a male customer, later identified as Tyrone Jackson of Augusta, Ga., on survellience camera putting a laptop computer under his jacket. When confronted, the man became irate, knocked down an employee, drew a knife and ran for the door.

Outside on the sidewalk were four Marines collecting toys for the Toys for Tots program. Smith said the Marines stopped the man, but he stabbed one of the Marines, Cpl. Phillip Duggan, in the back; the injury did not appear to be severe.

After Police and an ambulance arrived at the scene, Cpl. Duggan was transported for treatment.

“The subject was also transported to a local hospital with two broken arms, a broken ankle, a broken leg, several missing teeth, possible broken ribs, several contusions, assorted lacerations, a broken nose and a broken jaw…injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell off the curb after stabbing the Marine”, according to a police report.

Semper Fi…

(I did not independently verify the accuracy of this clipping, but even if it’s not real, I still think it’s a great example, don’t you?)

In case you missed the first six installments of Why I hate writing, you can find them here:

Why I hate writing, Part 1: Why I hate writers
Why I hate writing, Part 2: Publishing isn’t fair
Why I hate writing, Part 3: When writing hurts
Why I hate writing, Part 4: Critical acclaim vs book sales
Why I hate writing, Part 5: Fighting the Muse
Why I hate writing, Part 6: Metaphorically Speaking

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15 Responses to “Why I hate writing, Part 7: Show, don’t tell”

  1. Tony C May 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Good thing there were other Marines to help the dude, or he could have been seriously injured in such a dumb stunt…

    Live and learn.

  2. jake May 19, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    My facebook page says,”I can tell you, but we’ll both have more fun if you let me show you…” (TWSS) I’ve had that in mind since I started blogging. I love when somebody’s good at this, it changes the feel of basically, any subject.

  3. James Williams May 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Wow. Semper Fi, Indeed

  4. Simply Darlene May 19, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    I wonder which way I do it?

    Kathy, there is so much to balance that sometimes it just boggles my mind. Do you think the “show” version comes natural for only a few or for most writers?


    • katdish May 20, 2011 at 9:01 am #

      I can’ speak for other writers, but my natural inclination is to tell, not show. It’s one of those things I have to be aware of when I’m writing.

      • Michelle DeRusha May 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

        Absolutely, my inclincation, too. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been reminded, “show, don’t tell,” I’d be rich. Well, not really…but I’d have at least 10 bucks.

        Ann Kroeker at The High Calling has really helped become a better “shower” (oh, funny — that looks like shower…as in bathing!). But I still always have to conscious of it when I am writing.

  5. floyd May 20, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Those curbs can be nasty indeed! I’m a little slow so I was beginning to get it, but the picture story pushed me, or rather shoved my over the line. Point made very well, advice I needed to be reminded of to be sure. Thanks

  6. V.V. Denman May 20, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    From one teller to another: That’s Hilarious!

  7. Cassandra Frear May 20, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Yes. Except that sometimes your readers just want you to tell. “Just tell us!” they cry. When this happens, we should pay attention.

  8. Jason May 20, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    When I saw your blog title, this started playing on repeat in my mind:


    I don’t mind it…but I thought I’d inflict it on you too Kat. 🙂

    • katdish May 20, 2011 at 9:48 am #

      Winner, winner chicken dinner! I was wondering how long it would take before someone made a Rush reference. Should have known it would be you, Jason.

  9. Megan Willome May 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    OK, the part with the Marines totally cracked me up. Semper Fi, indeed!

  10. Kelly Sauer May 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    LOL – you didn’t quite know if it was the fall or the marines responsible for his injury…

  11. karenzach May 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    What I want to know is if the guy stealing the laptop is a veteran?

  12. jasonS May 23, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    That is too funny. Thanks Kat. You brought a smile to my day.

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