If writing is a public act, then, your purpose as a writer is to ignite reader’s interest and understanding of what you are writing about. The “Show, Don’t Tell” strategy emphasizes the reader’s experience of the material through the detail presented through action, concrete language, thoughts, sensory imagery, and feelings RATHER than the author’s summary and flat description of the material. The goal is to bring the reader into the action not by heavy descriptive phrases and adjectives but through their “entering” or interpreting the significant detail of the text.
American writer Ernest Hemingway was a successful proponent of this strategy. We might think of Hemingway’s prose as marked with precision of language and emphasis on action. In fact, Hemingway once commented that the verb was the most important word in the sentence, and his active, succinct style demonstrated the value of action and dialogue.
Show, Don’t Tell doesn’t dismiss the value of the author’s summarizing action or characterization; however, the strategy emphasizes a balance of the “telling vs showing” and summarizing vs action. As readers of fiction or non-fiction, we benefit from our authors’ attention to providing the detail necessary for readers to understand and follow along.
Let’s take a couple of examples:
Nadine Hays Pisani wrote a fun book, and her title is perhaps an example of the descriptive powers of Show Don’t Tell: Happier Than A Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week.
Here’s an example of “telling” & my summarizing the action:
“My husband, Rob, is the easiest going guy you’ll ever meet.” And he is slow to get upset. . . .
Here’s her showing with action & dialogue:
“My husband, Rob, is the easiest going guy you’ll ever meet. I once smacked a meatball sandwich out of his hand while we were bickering, scattering the tomato sauce across the floor like a Jackson Pollock painting. ‘Hey I was eating that,’ was all he could say before returning to the kitchen. It’s impossible to argue with a man who never wants to argue; who just wants to make himself another meatball sandwich instead of continuing a fight.” (p. 7)
Maria Semple could have begun her most recent novel Today Will Be Different (2016) with this opening statement and then move onto the next action:
Today will be different. . . .Because the other way wasn’t working. The waking up just to get the day over with until it was time for bed. . . .
Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.
Because the other way wasn’t working. The waking up just to get the day over with until it was time for bed. . . . (p.1)
In ensuring that your reader can be “involved” through Show, Don’t Tell, ask yourself a few questions:
What do I want the reader to feel? To see? To know?
How can I achieve this?
Show, Don’t Tell is not limited to the “creative writing”; in fact, your academic reader needs the same balance in the presentation of material. Your work as the writer is deciding when “showing” is necessary and when you can rely on “summary” of material. If your reader is asking questions, such as “why” and “how,” then you’re obligated to develop your ideas with concrete proof and supportive material through examples, quotes, data, and other explanations. See Writing for an Academic Audience for more information.
“Show, Don’t Tell” FUN Exercise:
Let’s put this into action (pun intended!) and play with some of the elements of a story: setting, character, action in a familiar image of the busy grocery store where a harried person is looking for something to eat that evening. You want your reader to “see” this person.
First, jot down your immediate intent for the overall image and then begin to form ideas on how to achieve that. Does the person have a name? What is the person wearing?
Where are we? Show us the environment while giving specifics of the surroundings:
Next comes the action: What would the woman do to illustrate that she’s “harried”?
Write that here:
Examine your language: are you using precise, concrete wording to present images in your reader’s mind? Brainstorm a few verbs here:
Is there any dialogue among the customers? Between this person and another? Jot a few lines here, but make it purposeful.
Next take a look at description: What adjectives or descriptive phrases might enhance the action and character? Write a few here.
Let’s see how description can work. Could description be integrated with action or dialogue?
By now, you have a few details that you can draw from to create a scene. Do that in a single paragraph. Read it aloud and enjoy what you’ve created.