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.
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.
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.
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