Don’t just tell your story. Make it come alive.

I’ll be honest, my first attempts at writing short stories or essays turned out to be a series of rants and confessions — experiences that needed clearing before any real writing could take place. In those first few weeks of purging, I learned the difference between telling a story and writing a story. As Margaret Atwood says in her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing:

A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.

I wanted to be a writer, so I signed up for an online course.

I forget the exact writing assignment from our instructor that first week (something about a lie you’d been told or a person who betrayed you), but, oh, was I itching to write it. My fingers were on fire. What’s funny is that my burning assignment ended up being very little “story.” It finished out at less than one thousand words, and I managed to fill many of those sentences with the word “irritating,” or some derivation thereof. That could be an exaggeration, but I doubt it, since one of the other writers in class commented that “We get that your character is irritated.”

In other words, show us, don’t tell us. Please.

“Show don’t tell.” That phrase sounded familiar, but my newbie writer’s mind thought it vague. Being a compare and contrast kind of girl, I needed concrete examples. Show me, I whined! One of the other writers must have heard me, and she sent a quick note to the message board with a few snippets of telling vs. showing. One particular example made all the difference for me. She wrote:

Telling: Louie drank a lot.

Showing: Louie shoved last night’s collection of empty beer bottles aside and poured the morning’s pick-me-up into a glass. He considered topping it off with orange juice, but the sweet smell turned his stomach. Instead, he downed the vodka straight. “Ah, that’s a better color on the day,” he said. He said that every day. *

Show, don’t tell.

The February 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest also talks about the same issue in an article called, “25 Ways to Improve Your Writing in 30 Minutes a Day.” Jack Heffron and Sage Cohen call it Precision and Imagery, but the meaning is the same.

On precision, Jack Heffron says, “The key to successfully creating or conveying worlds for our readers is painstakingly observing those worlds, and then scribbling down the precise details that tell the story. On imagery, Sage Cohen says “A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat.”

A well-formed image appears when the writer uses tiny, often overlooked details, from a scene. Sometimes those details emerge through other senses, sometimes they are just visual notes. Either way, a sentence or a scene comes alive in the end.

To be fair, telling in writing has its own purpose as well. In the Writer’s Digest article, Sage Cohen also says that “sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.”

What’s your favorite example of showing, not telling? Or, maybe you have an example where telling is the better choice?

* Used with permission from Jennifer Savage.

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12 responses to “Don’t just tell your story. Make it come alive.

  1. I have to work on showing. It looks so easy until you try and do it yourself.

    • No kidding, Gwen. I still find myself writing those one-liners that don’t say anything exciting. But, that’s the importance of revision, I guess, and the fun in editing 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Noooo! I have too many books on writing, but how can I pass up Margaret Atwood’s? What a great title, too. And how did it escape my notice until now?

    I don’t have an example on hand of show vs tell, but lately I’ve become interested in the idea of “show-tell”. I don’t know if I can explain it well, and I think Margaret Atwood does it superbly (of course). It’s the narrative flow with precise detail. It’s most often done in back story and reads more like “telling”, but it “shows”. It’s not a full-blown scene, but gives the experience of being in a scene. I’ll try to find an example and stop back by later.

    • Yes, I love that book by Margaret Atwood. In fact, it might be time for me to re-read it! I’m intrigued, too, by your “show-tell” idea. I’m looking forward to you stopping back over.

  3. I discovered the show-tell idea in “Manuscript Makeover” by Elizabeth Lyon, who cites “Description” by Monica Wood for the name of the technique. I like it because it’s something that I’ve struggled to achieve in my writing, and I think it’s a significant part of what I like about my favorite authors’ writing.

    At the risk of stating the obvious here, Lyon says narration is typically used in description, named emotions, back story, interior thoughts. She says character-driven narration uses the show-tell technique.

    Here’s one of her examples from “Polar Star” by Martin Cruz Smith.

    During his first months at sea, Arkady had spent a lot of time on deck watching for dolphins, sea lions and whales, just to see them moving. [tell-show] The sea gave the illusion of escape. [tell] But after a time he realized that what all these creatures of the sea had, as they swam this way and that, was a sense of purpose. [tell-show-tell] It was what he didn’t have. [tell]

    This one has a lot of telling, so maybe not the best example, but enough to illustrate the idea. There’s a more fleshed out example, using seneses as well, but I didn’t want to consume your comments section. I know Atwood does it well, “Cat’s Eye” comes to mind. Again, great post!

    • Thanks for the example, Cathryn. Now you’ve given me a book to track down. I love the tell-show-tell piece that unfolds in one sentence alone. And, I’ve read Cat’s Eye, but I’m putting it back on my TBR list again!

  4. I remind myself of “show, don’t tell” a lot during revisions. I can see how telling might be the right choice sometimes too though.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Sonia. I love Cathryn’s example, which includes both elements of telling & showing and demonstrates how they can work together. I guess, as in many things writing, balance is the key!

  5. I’ve picked up on this a lot in Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend From Far Away”. I love this passage from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir “Working in the Dark” reprinted in Goldberg’s book, “It was late when I returned to my cell. Under my blanket I switched on a pen flashlight and opened the thick book at random, scanning the pages. The jangle of his keys and the sharp click of his boot heals intensified my solitude. Slowly I enunciated the words…p-o-n-d, ri-pple. It scared me that I had been reduced to this to find comfort.”

    I’m in that cell with him, hidden under the blanket, holding my breath, hearing the clicks, the keys, the letters.

    • Wow, great passage! It’s really those seemingly minor details, like a click of a boot, that make all the difference. And you know, I haven’t read that book by Goldberg. I’ve got to get that one on my list.

  6. schillingklaus

    I detest and violate the rule “show don’t tell” deliberately and religiously. None of your critique will be able to change my mind: for the rule is an ideology spread by realists, whereamongst I don’t belong; therefor, the rule is not valid for my style.

  7. It’s so easy to see this in other’s writing, but not so for one’s own!

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