Monday, November 11, 2013

Show & Tell

This is the second in a series about the rules of good writing.

The Second Basic Principle: Show, don't tell.

What does “show, don’t just tell” really mean? To answer that question, I'll ask another one by way of an example. Can you remember being in elementary school on show-n-tell day? Imagine the kid who gets up in front of you and your classmates, empty-handed, and then claims to have a baseball signed by Hank Aaron that’s in perfect condition, only she can’t bring it to school. You can see the eye rolls, can't you?

Even though you’re only eight years old, you know that the story has a few problems. Not only can you not see the ball to know exactly what “perfect condition” looks like, but you can't eyeball the signature, sniff the leather or count the stitches. In other words, you have no reason to believe this kid even if she describes the ball perfectly.

If you tell without showing, your readers might not believe you. In other words, you have to show what you mean. Good writing tends to draw an image in the readers’ mind.

Here's an example of a sentence that tells:

Mr. Schlopenferker is a gangly, ungrateful, and untidy old codger.

There’s a better way to create a stronger image of Mr. Schlopenferker in the reader's mind's eye -- by showing, rather than telling:

Mr. Schlopenferker heaved himself out of the filthy, dilapidated armchair. He struggled to get to his feet and to support his ample length with his cane. The chair groaned in protest. Mr. Schlopenferker's swollen, misshapen knees popped and cracked in objection. The old man pounded the floor with his cane, cursing because the coffee in his cup was cold again.

In the second example, I didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is tall. I showed it by writing that he struggled to get to his feet, and by describing his ample height. I also didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is old. I showed it by mentioning his swollen, misshapen knees popping and cracking, and his cane. I also didn’t tell you that he's ungrateful, but the impatience of a pounding cane has you thinking that he may not be a very appreciative man.

Showing, not telling, gives the reader a clearer picture of what's happening. Whenever possible, offer vivid and specific descriptions to offset mind-numbing statistics about the ingratitude of the old, and endless bar charts and graphs proving this improbable statistic. Showing, and not telling, gives the reader close-up details. The lens of the camera comes in nice and tight on your subject. 

Remember: whenever possible, show don't just tell.

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