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…
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.
(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