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.