Tell, Don’t Show

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...

Reading the newspaper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you a shower or a teller? For some reason I am a “teller” and I blame it on the fact that I write for a newspaper where there is not a lot of room for showing.

“Show, don’t tell” is the mantra of every successful writer. It is not mine (so what does that say about me?) but I do respect it. Becca  (Becca Puglisi)  from Bookshelf  Muse gives a brief rundown of “Show, don’t Tell” in a guest column she did for another blog (Wendy’s Writing Now) today. It is brilliantly simple–so simple, that I understood it. Here are a few of her wise words, but the whole post is worthy of a trip over:

“Telling usually explains everything right off the bat. There are certain venues where you want people to explain things as simply as possible: when they’re giving directions or explaining a calculus lesson; when you’re on the phone with your neighbor who never stops talking and The Walking Dead starts in 30 seconds. But in fiction, telling is a form of talking down to the reader; it doesn’t give him/her any credit. At worst, repeated telling says to the audience, “I’m not entirely sure that you’re capable of getting the point if I write it with any subtlety, so let me make it really simple.” At best, it’s a sign that you’re unsure of your own ability to make yourself understood without using the simplest of words. Neither message is one you want to send.”

In newspaper writing we tell a story, but we let the facts speak for themselves. I embellish every once in a while for fun, but in getting the information across, I do not talk about how a person is feeling when they make a statement. I let them live and die by their statement. In trying to make the transition to non-fiction writing and even creative non-fiction writing, I have to take a step back and really work on the showing part.

As I have written a weekly column for almost fifteen years (and earlier in my career for two years) I have somewhat perfected the art of essay writing (ha ha). Okay, not perfected it, but I have turned out a column every week for years, so I must have learned something. I think my column is a combo of showing and telling.  I am an advocate of simplicity, and showing rather than telling is something that I struggle with. I am willing to write with more subtlety, but I wonder if I will understand it. Perhaps I am too simple to garnish my writing with things that show instead of tell.

It is something to contemplate. But know dear readers, that if I do tell you stuff, instead of showing you stuff, it is because it is my style, it is not because you are lacking in skills to unpuzzle what I have said.

Is your bliss in show, don’t tell, or are you like me and tell too much?

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Published in: on January 29, 2013 at 1:46 pm  Comments (59)  
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  1. Interesting. Now you have me thinking, which am I? What does that say if I don’t know on my own? My editor would be able to give you a better answer ;)

    • don’t worry if your editor never mentioned anything – you are doing just fine–you show in your pics for sure

  2. Lou Ann, I’d like to think I show instead of tell when i write fiction. But since I spend a lot of time (when the work’s coming in) writing non-fiction, it’s sometimes difficult to make that switch. Like you, I’ve written for local newspapers and some magazine articles and there’s a format. You do have to tell — rather straightforward facts — sometimes there’s some leeway for creativity but not like fiction writing. I still believe if you write everyday — in any capacity — it makes your writing better. As with anything else, “showing not telling” takes practice as does the other! Great post — especially for writers. You and I should do more of those!

    • we should — I should try a show don’t tell exercise–I like being creative in my nonfiction–but I have a heck of a time writing fiction

  3. This was very helpful, LouAnn. I think I tell more than show, even in my poetry. Excellent points to consider.

  4. I don’t really like the show versus tell because it doesn’t always make clear the differences or when telling makes more sense and when showing makes more sense. I like the idea of considering scene versus summary. That said, I wrote a post way back this fall kvetching about writing instructors always harping on showing to the point that I no longer know how to tell ;).

    • okay I am going to try this again– I responded but must have forgotten to send – am going to check out your post–I agree with your points and guess that is why I have such trouble with it

      • It’s “Tell Like Heck: Writing Summary.”

      • so showing is scene and telling is summary?

      • Yes. Showing can be more than scene, too, but that’s the easiest way to think of it. Telling is where you summarize in order to get to the point faster. If a journalist wrote news articles in scene, it might be interesting, but we’d never find out what happened fast enough. What I think is intriguing is that we think of journalists as being so (or supposed to be, at least) objective, and yet in order to distill the facts for us, they make all kinds of decisions for the reader. With showing the reader has more choice in how to interpret.

      • as a newspaper journalist I try to be objective, but you are right–we do have a lot of leeway about what we are going to put in and leave out of a story

      • Right and that movement from witnessing a scene to summarizing it by telling necessarily leaves out so much that what is told is the journalist’s own interpretation of what happened, even though the idea is just the facts, ma’am. It’s all very weird. Whenever I think about it too much I feel like “there is no truth” ;).

  5. I’m a ‘teller’ for sure….I always want to clarify things with someone and make sure they understand exactly what I’m saying…Diane

  6. Thanks for expounding on this, LouAnn! It’s such a weird, abstract issue. Kind of hard to nail down. And once you do, you realize there are legitimate times when it’s better to tell. *boggle*. But that’s the way it is with everything, I guess. Learn the principle, then figure out when to apply it.

    • I thought you gave the most clear examples I have read–it is abstract but you seemed to have solved the puzzle for me

  7. I think I’m more naturally a teller which is why I find non-fiction easier, I have to work hard to show in my fiction, but I do work on it because it’s what brings a story to life. It can be difficult to get your head around doing it, but once you get it and practise it, it becomes easier. It’s a good exercise to work on describing things without actually saying what they are. Like you could say:

    John looked at Mary and said, “I love you.”
    Mary replied, “I know.”

    Or you could say:

    Mary looked at John and was overwhelmed by the depth of feeling she could see in his eyes.

    Obviously the first way is the tell way and is very boring, the second way is the show way and is much more emotive. I know you know the difference between show and tell, I’m just giving an example of the type of exercises that can be practised to develop it (and that was telling!).

    • thanks Vanessa– I think I will consciously start practicing it so it will become more natural, she said with a twinkle in her eye and a lilt in her voice

    • Actually, the first way showing as it is “scene.” The second example is telling becuase it’s summing up and the narrator is telling the reader how it is rather than allowing the reader to draw inferences. Sorry, but I was this and thought you used great examples.

      • *saw, not was duh

  8. Good post. I don’t talk much but I over write- probably too much detail. Can’t seem to break the habit. But as I have written- I am not trained to be a writer. I did not study the craft so what you see is my vast inexperience to communicate a story or to provide information. Maybe people like me should be banned from the internet. Seriously. I am not writing this in as attempt to garner praise. “I know what I know when I knowed it.”

    My husband used to say that a lot. Even though you have not asked for piddly expressions, my husband had one very good one. ” That’s a lesson that you bought.” Dont’ know if you get the meaning of that but it is so true.

    Back to you.The posts here are all so good. In my non-pro opinion everything makes sense to me (you are getting the story across to an oldee so that must be the sign of a great writer) :-)

    • your post about KittyKat was true story telling and beautifully done – never think of yourself as not a writer just because you were not formally trained

      • Lou Ann Iwas not fishing for a compliment. I really in all honesty wish that I could write as well as you. Your words flow and the writing is easy and enjoyable. It is just plain good.

        BUT you compliment me too much. If I were younger and you know what I mean, I would take some writing courses.But I have other things that I want to achieve (better photos and to outlive my pets so that none have to be destroyed or my daughter attempt to find homes for any of them.

        Also I would very much like learn how to play the Indian flute but I’m not sure that my old brain will allow that to happen or that I can find the time to learn.

        Thanks for the reply,
        Yvonne

      • I know you were not fishing or I would not have taken the bait –what is the Indian flute and how is it different – Indian as from India?

      • No the North American Indians. The music is haunting. If you have ever listened to New age music , The flute is used in some of the compositions. I’m not sure if I could even find someone is this area that teaches that type of music.I have not attempted to get info about it since I have the health issues with my child. Alll of that needs to be resolved first and hopefully at some point she can resume her practice. The meds are quite expensive and her insurance will be out of the federal pool that Obama managed to get past so that people with preexisting conditions must be accepted by the insurance companies. The insufrance will cost 8k or there about. She is applying for social security disability.

        Her trial by fire and her health has about worn me to a nub. I just want her pain to be controlled so that she can have a semblance of a normal life. It is draining my savings but I get a decent retirement check but I have put many things on hold.. I’m not motivated to post any thing but iI need to get out of these doldrums soon.

      • so wish I could help–you are nigh on burnout–but when it comes to our kids we will do anything–know that my prayers are with you (hugs)

  9. Your approach to journalism would seem to hit all the right buttons … I was advised once to not tell people about the sausage, show them the sizzle, let them smell it :)

  10. I am a firm believer of a mix of telling AND showing. As I said on another blog about this issue, sometimes it is a “red door” and not “a door the color of a gruesome murder scene.”

    • I read that post – yes there is a time and place isn’t there, my guru of the fine art of writing

  11. The words reached out from the page and gripped me so tightly I thought I would choke on the emotion, but I could not break away and before I knew it, the entire morning had passed. Tear stained and bent to a permanently half-opened posture, the paperback occupies a place on my nightstand as a reminder of the power its author held over me.

    Just thought I’d join in on your game of show vs tell. I think maybe I did too much telling in Summoning the Strength. Now I’ve learned my lesson and the second book might have more show. Nice reminder! Thanks LouAnn.

  12. Teller. xoM

  13. mmmm scratch scratch — I don’t know. Good post

  14. I tell more than show but am working through it. My WIP is a mix right now. The most “showy” parts are the ones I’ve edited for whatever reason. The other mantra of writers is not to edit while writing which I find difficult to do.

    I love your blog so if it’s telling, it works for you!

    ~Gail

    • why thank you–what a nice thing to say Gail — I break all kinds of rules but they are there for guidance not adherence without thinking I figure
      when I write something longer than an article or my column I edit as I go sometimes too–I find it hard not too-

  15. Ah, I think I might tell perhaps more than I show, as well. Especially in my personal essays. This post served as a good reminder for this wannabe novelist!

    • I have to be reminded too–and I think essays lend themselves to tell more than show

  16. That’s so interesting… I write two weekly Q&A columns for my local newspaper, and I’ve written features for about seven years. I think there is a difference in journalism-style writing vs. fiction. But both challenge your mind to be able to tell the story so that readers understand the facts… one is presenting the facts simply and unembellished (newspaper writing), and one sometimes walks around the facts and allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions. I love both! It’s a challenge to write for both genres; I feel very fortunate.

  17. Ha – I am on the fence with this!

  18. I remember an English teacher once critiquing my essay, saying I had plenty of talent for “showing” but that I also had a tendency to “tell” too much. To this day, I think that’s still kind of how I write so I don’t really know whether I’m telling or showing. I probably tell too much since I always want people to really understand what I’m saying or thinking and tend to overcompensate because of it.

    • I agree with you-sometimes showing can be misconstrued and if it is then your own point is lost

  19. Do you think it’s tied to personality some way?
    I think – for me – it’s easier to show than tell.
    But – that’s how I see myself. Not sure what others would say.

  20. We are constantly teaching our students, from Kinder forward, to show and not tell. After teaching that lesson a bazillion times, you’d think I’d be able to do it. But alas, I continue to fumble in the dark.

  21. Since I only write poetry or non-fiction, I’d have to say I’m a shower..I lay it out and leave it up to the reader to interpret..

    • you know yourself – you have one of the most unconfused comments regarding this

  22. Hmm. I like to strike a balance between the two. A story full of telling can be boring, but similarly, a story full of showing can be pretty overwhelming. There are appropriate places for each!

    • you have hit the proverbial nail on the head–thanks for this “balanced” way of looking at it

  23. I have to say that I both show and tell too much–as evidenced by my blog and the amount of people who have experienced difficulties eating while reading it. Finding the right words and the pictures that enhance them is my goal–now, if only I could achieve it.

    • I think you do a wonderful job–I do remember not to eat when I read your posts though–you should take this as a compliment, as you are definitely having an effect on people. Your effect on me is to make me laugh and that is the best effect of all!

  24. Well….I have swung the wide pendulum from don’t tell anything to telling too much. It’s a difficult balance to find for me.


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