Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Writers hear this advice so often, it can feel like it’s being generated by the Muse of Nagging, who smells like old soup and/or middle school lunchroom realities. She is the bologna of the muses, the one you always find between the pages of your most hopeful manuscript when you were hoping to discover filet mignon. So why do writing teachers persist in calling on her, when so many writing students seem to be tuning her out?
I’m going to go out on a writing teacher limb here and acknowledge that while there are several excellent ideas buried within the advice to show instead of tell, as with most cutely reductionist sayings, “show, don’t tell” is neither particularly descriptive nor particularly helpful. It might be relatively easy to recognize when you’ve been showing instead of telling — or to at least recognize it when someone points it out to you — but telling is a hard habit to break, and showing is far more difficult to master than this particularly pithy chestnut would suggest.
For most of our writing lives, we tell. In fact, every school-aged child in America gets showing pretty much drilled out of them from the time they learn to write until their last year of schooling (and for those who enter the business world, the drilling continues unabated). Dickens’ Gradgrind would be so proud of the way we insist our children stick to the facts. I’d wager that in 95% of their writing assignments from first grade through high school/college/graduate school, the personal pronoun is off limits, descriptive writing is discouraged, metaphor is looked at askance, and, poetic turns of phrase rarely make it past a smile in the teachers’ lounge. Sure, a good school will teach kids to learn about literary devices and analyze them in texts, but they’re very rarely encouraged to take them out for a test drive of their own. Why would they be? Creative writing won’t get them higher paying jobs, or earn them corporate promotions, or even publication in an academic journal.
The problem is that living in the 21st century requires a heck of a lot more than a solid background in number crunching and formulaic writing. It requires being creative and courageous and willing to deal with unprecedented innovation. It demands new levels of emotional fluency and the ability to communicate across massive social and political divides. It asks for us to show up, in other words, whole-heartedly. And it’s not just kids who need to embrace these qualities. We all do.
So it’s no surprise that people are seeking new ways to express themselves in a meaningful way. It’s also not surprising that many turn to fiction, which can capture and express truths that prosaic language cannot stretch to grasp. Which means that writing teachers also need to up their game, and stop delivering the same, tired advice that makes sense in theory but can be baffling in practice.
So what is this showing that so many speak of, why is it so important, and how the heck do you go about doing it?
Showing is the act of using fictional tools to enhance a reader’s experiential sense of the story. And it’s important because showing, unlike telling, allows a reader to experience the meaning of a story on a much more intimate, personal level, which represents an opportunity to form connections, develop empathy, and deepen our understanding of the human experience. You know. Little stuff.
And while showing can take a lifetime to master, boy, oh boy is it fun to learn. I have a million-and-one prompts I like to give to help new fiction writers learn to show, but you can get surprisingly far just by trying to write as much of your work in scene, by thoughtfully incorporating as many details that involve the senses (sight, touch, sound, taste, hearing) into your work and letting them take the lead on the page, and by dissecting the best dialogue you can get your hands on and using it as a primer for your own attempts.
I could go on, but I’m not your writing teacher. So go out and find one who’s willing to unpack this for you, and dive unabashedly into as many books as you can get your hands on, setting aside a carefully cultivated selection of those that really speak to you to use as touchstones throughout your writing career. And please, for heaven’s sake, stop nodding and smiling when someone gives you the kind of guidance that doesn’t make any sense. Narrative is a human right, as is voice, and we need to show up for its potential and purpose. Even if we need to all fumble around for a while to figure out how to teach each other better, our work will pay us back a millionfold in kind.
Art: Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1961