Monday, April 22, 2013

943. S Is for Show, Don't Tell

Show, don’t tell.  My 9th grade English teacher used to run around the classroom, tapping an imaginary ruler in her hand while crying out in sudden angry bursts, “Show, don’t tell!” 

I had no idea what she was talking about. 

I didn’t want to look stupid though, by asking the question that the other 99% of the students seemed to already knew the answer to, so I would just nod-nod-nod.  Of course, of course, I get it!  My nods were very convincing.  If you nod enough, anyone will believe you.  

Sure, I get it!  I do!  I get it!    

(I didn’t really get it.)  
About 20 years later, I had my Oprah Winfrey lightbulb moment when I was explaining my definition of good writing to a friend. 

“Don't write a phrase like ‘I am cold.’  That is punching the reader in the face with the obvious.  Try something more subtle like, ‘I forgot my coat and it began to snow,’ that way the reader has to connect the dots.  Instead of saying something predictable like, ‘I’m tired,’ try to write something creative that shows you are tired such as ‘The neighbors had a party and blared heavy metal through the paper-thin walls until 3 AM, and then I had to be up at 6 for work.  No pot of coffee is large enough for me today.’  The reader figures out you are tired, and your words actually have more impact that way.  You write the situation without spelling it out for the reader, you let them do the translations for themselves.” 
(And as an aside to my 9th grade teacher:  Better late than never, right?)   



  1. I have trouble with the next part of the lesson...the application. I know, but the do sometimes is difficult to remember. Great post.

  2. Sometimes the show don't tell rule can seem very complicated - but examples like this help it make sense :) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  3. A very good point, and something I don't remember having been told when I was at school. Must make a note of that and try to apply it to my blog where necessary.

  4. Excellent examples. I'm guilty of nodding my head.

  5. Telling tends to keep readers at a distance rather than drawing them in. Hehe ... tomorrow, my post is about telling and when it might be better to tell vs show.

  6. This is such a wonderful post.

    *nods* I get it : )

  7. I'm with you.....I wouldn't have understood what 'show, don't tell' meant either.....but now that you've explained it; it's so clear (smacking forehead)! Thank you for visiting my little corner of the world and I hope you will return often. I've got you bookmarked and I'll be back. Good luck with the challenge.....we're seeing the light at the end of tunnel about now.

  8. I hated the phrase when I was in school. I always thought, come on! this isn't a photography course. But like you I had an epiphany in collage and when I taught I always made sure to show the kids the difference.

  9. I think we all have those lightbulb moments from time to time.

  10. Oh, I get it (now)! Thanks for the smack-head moment.

  11. I still struggle with show, don't tell. It just seems that it takes so many extra words to tell.


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