“Show, Don’t Tell” Explained In A Language Grown Ups Can Understand

Probably one of the most useless phrases that writers are told is this one:

“Show. Don’t tell!”

It’s true that the phrase “show, don’t tell” represents an important lesson about the writing process. Unfortunately, it’s an important lesson that’s still being relayed to us in elementary-school language.

Not that there’s anything wrong with elementary school. It’s just that we’re adults, and we deserve a deeper, more complex explanation of “show, don’t tell” than the one we are often given.

See “show, don’t tell” reminds us of “show and tell” and the days when we used to bring lady bugs trapped in an aspiring bottle to the classroom. We would talk about how cool it was to cut off the air supply to innocent bugs and imprison them for days until they died of suffocation.

(Fun times.)

But what does this nostalgia for “show and tell” tell you about the writing process? Nothing. At least nothing deep and substantive enough for you to USE. The phrase “show, don’t tell” only simplifies a complex storytelling concept to the point where it causes deep confusion. (Which is ironic, if you think about it.) My readers come to me completely baffled as to what people really mean when they ask them to “show” and not “tell” in their writing.

Personally, I never really learned the lesson of showing vs. telling by having someone yell at me “Show, don’t tell!” Instead, I learned this important lesson through years of rigorous work under my writing mentor Cherrie Moraga. Cherrie has already cemented her place in theater history alongside the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and she taught me everything I know about great storytelling.

Replacing “Show, Don’t Tell” with “Observe and Report”

What Cherrie taught me was that, as a writer, about 90% percent of my work will go unread. That’s right. NO ONE will ever get to read it. That 90% is all background: character sketches, setting maps, invisible scenes (or scenes the reader never sees but help you develop story or character), history, family trees, etc.

On the other hand, 10% of my work WILL be read. But even most of THAT work will be incredibly SUBTLE.

What that means is that, when I tell my story, I am going to be CLEAR, but not OBVIOUS. DIRECT but not PRECISE.

Still not getting it?

Okay. Really, the best way to explain “show, don’t tell” in the simplest, most direct manner is to throw out that elementary school phrase completely, and replace it with the phrase: “OBSERVE AND REPORT.”

And the best way to explain OBSERVE AND REPORT is to ask you to perform a little exercise.

Writing Exercise

First, write down a scene that takes place in a park. (Any park. Doesn’t matter.) Stop writing your scene at about 3 pages. Then, put that scene away in your drawer.

Second, go to an ACTUAL park and sit there. And instead of writing your scene, I want you to OBSERVE and REPORT. That is, I want you to try your best to describe what you see in the park, and what you see only. Write down NOT what you guess is happening, but what you observe is happening. That means you will not be able to determine whether that shady park worker is really a serial killer, or whether that couple looking away from each other are about to get a divorce, or whether that puppy with a limp leg got into a fight with another dog or was beaten by its own master. You won’t know much of anything. You will only know about 10% of the real story. Just like in real life. Right?

Observe what you hear, smell, taste, touch, and see. Then jot it all down. You might find that you can’t help but write more than 3 pages because there’s so much detail.

Finally, go back home and compare your 3 pages you wrote–when you were at home trying to SHOW and NOT TELL your story–with the pages you wrote while you were at the park OBSERVING your story and REPORTING it back to us.

See the huge difference? That’s what people mean when they ask you to SHOW and not TELL in your writing–except that they were explaining it to you as if you were still 5 years old.

Your Job As A Writer

You see, your job as a writer is to go where the reader can’t, and then report what you saw back to the reader. For instance, you’ve never been to Middle Earth, but if you’ve ever read Lord of The Rings you could have sworn that Tolkien had actually been there.

Forget show and tell. That’s for kindergartens. Observe and report instead. Observing and reporting, unlike showing and telling, requires expert patience. It requires stellar listening skills. It requires excellent research skills. It requires you to step out of your comfort zone and go straight to where your story is hiding: out there, in the world.

Real or imagined.

much love,

Ollin

Read: More On Replacing “Show, Don’t Tell” With Observe and Report + Examples

To follow the Courage 2 Create and find out what happens to Ollin and his novel, you can subscribe by inserting your e-mail into the subscription box in the top right corner of the sidebar! Subscription is completely free! Thank you for subscribing!

Like Courage 2 Create’s Fan Page.

Follow Ollin On Twitter.

Friend Ollin On Facebook.

27 comments on ““Show, Don’t Tell” Explained In A Language Grown Ups Can Understand

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks Ollin! What a smart way of truly showing what “show, don’t tell” means:)

    Another way of thinking about it is to compare stories to movies. Good movies show everything and tell nothing – we have to pick up on things based on what the camera’s POV is observing.

    In a way, it’s like writing through a lens.

    • Ollin says:

      Great point Christina! You are right, movies do an excellent job of showing versus telling. At least the great movies do, anyway.

  2. Great blog post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. […] Ollin Morales, on why “show, don’t tell” often confuses writers: […]

  4. Jeffrey Tang says:

    I like your twist on “show, don’t tell.”

    Observe and report adds the implication that we, as writers, need to really know the worlds our characters inhabit, whether those worlds are based on our own or entirely fictional. “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t quite get this emphasis on detail.

    If you’re interested, I riff on your idea as it applies to blogging here.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Jeffrey!

      I share your post with my readers on twitter. Follow me on twitter: @ollinmorales to check it out. I think you make a great point asking bloggers to observe and report as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. kaleba says:

    Observe and report sounds journalistic, which is maybe why writing teachers don’t use it. But it’s probably a better way of describing what a writer is doing rather than using the words show don’t tell.

    Helpful post, Olin. Thank you for writing it.

  6. tahliaN says:

    This is a good way to put it. Very helpful. It took me a long time to really understand what those words meant. Now when I scrawl, ‘ show’ over sections of my ms, I know what it means.

    I did a workshop with an editor who gave me some excellent pointers for looking at the actual words that I used and how they affected whether or not I was showing or telling

    http://tahlianewland.com/2010/11/29/when-do-you-know-you%e2%80%99re-telling-not-showing-part-2-%e2%80%93-%e2%80%98were%e2%80%99s-that%e2%80%99s-and-with%e2%80%99s/

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks for sharing that link! Yeah, it does take a long time to really get what it means. It’s a lesson that is a lot more complex than people make it seem.

  7. Great explaination, Ollin. Thanks for dumbing it down a little for me! Hahaha.😄 xoxoxo

  8. Marvin says:

    Ollin, shaking up the writing house. lol! Great post. I’ve read quite a few books on writing, but you are the first to describe like that. It’s very accurate, in my opinion.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Marvin! I was trying to “shake things up” because many of my readers weren’t getting what “show and don’t tell” means. I hope this clears it up for it.

  9. Rebekah Jensen says:

    Great post!!! I’m going to share this!!!!! I had an aha moment when I was watching Tangled (silly i know). Her real parents never utter one word, but you know exactly what’s going on! They don’t say “I’m heartbroken!” But it’s so clear! Solid storytelling! That’s what I want to create!!!
    Thanks again!!!!

    • Ollin says:

      Excellent example Rebekah. Disney, as you know, are STELLAR story tellers. That’s what they do best over anything, including special effects and animation.

      Another great example is the beginning of UP one of the most classic examples of Observe and Report I have ever seen. Truly heartbreaking.

  10. Miss GOP says:

    Really interesting look at this subject. As a writing teacher and writer, it is helpful to find new ways to explain this concept. Showing examples to my students helps.

    I also say that there has to be a little bit of telling. Exposition is a way of telling, right?

    Thanks for this post. I just found your blog and am enjoying all the helpful resources. -Miss GOP

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks I’m glad you liked it. Generally, people don’t have trouble understanding the telling part. Yes, there is some amount of telling but I’ve never read something written by someone that gives me a scene and never tells me what it’s about. Generally by the time we graduate High School, we get that a story has to be clear enough that we know the basics of what is going on. That’s thanks to teachers like you!

  11. Observe and report sounds too passive for me. Like ‘telling’. ‘Showing’ puts me in the action. I’ll confess, I never understood the meaning until I accomplished the goal. Once I truly did act out my scenes rather than narrating, I got it.

    So what I’m try to say is, you’re right!

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Jacqui! I’m glad it helped you. If you understood show, don’t tell already then you were good, I think this was more for people who were still confused.

  12. Lynn Fang says:

    I like the observe and report concept. It really shows that you need to know what you’re talking about before you publish. It’s interesting too you pointed out that 90% of a writer’s work will be unread. I always cling onto everything I write, but now that I know 90% is unread, slashing things will be much easier… Which reinforces the point that writing is about most optimally communicating the message to my reader, not show him everything I could possibly put to paper. Another wonderfully insightful post!

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Lynn! And of course you learned first hand how to switch from telling to showing, or how to observe and report yourself through the writing consultation service. Makes a HUGE difference doesn’t it?

  13. […] On Monday, I discussed this phrase writers often hear from experts: “Show. Don’t Tell!” Now, “Show, Don’t Tell” represents a very important lesson for any writer, but often times it is a lesson that can be misunderstood or ill-explained, muddled by the very phrase used to denote it. I think that, ironically enough, the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” really doesn’t tell writers anything. At least not anything they can use. I’ve noticed this as I’ve been working with clients through my writing consultation service. On Monday, I offered a replacement phrase to “Show, and Tell” and it was “Observe and Report.” {Read Monday’s post here.} […]

  14. Leslie says:

    I’ve never really had a problem with the phrase “show, don’t tell” (I believe I first encountered the concept in Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, which I love, and she explained it quite well, I thought.) and I find “observe and report” a little clinical, though it is accurate. I do really like your exercise for demonstrating the concept, though. Good explaining!

    • Ollin says:

      Well, it’s not really about the wording, it’s about making it so you understand what the person is asking you to do. If it doesn’t work for you, you can definitely throw it away. I don’t mind. I was just looking for a better way to understand an old concept because many of my readers were asking me to explain it to them because they were not getting it from others.

Comments are closed.