Show, Don’t Tell

The common adage to “show” instead of “tell” emerged originally from fiction contexts. In his marvelous book On Moral Fiction, John Gardner imagines a writer using the power of his imagination to give “clarity and richness, or, to put it another way, make the characters, settings, and events seem real.” In one of his marvelous asides, he adds:

He knows, for instance, that it is not enough to say Her father was a drunkard, since the mere abstract statement does not conjure the image of a drunkard in the reader’s mind; instead, the writer must add some concrete image, perhaps some metaphoric expression as well—She remembered him sitting at the kitchen table, gray as a stone, with his hat on.3

The same principle applies in much of nonfiction, especially when it has narrative elements. I often caution writers against spoon-feeding their insights to readers—not unlike delivering a punchline before telling the joke. Okay, whatever, readers will respond while wondering what you are REALLY trying to say.

Don’t just tell readers what you want them to hear, I say. Engage their imagination by pacing your sequence of delivery carefully enough to allow them to discover their way to the insight themselves. Then, just when they are intuiting it, you spring it open on the surface by saying it in a way that names what they have already been sensing. This time it lands with the force of an epiphany. Ohhh, I never thought of it THAT way.

I found one of the best articulations of why this principle is so important in an old college text of mine, Sound and Sense. The authors explain the difference between the scientific use of language, for the purpose of analyzing data, and the literary use of language, for the purpose of synthesizing experience.

Their first chapter, “What Is Poetry?” might as well be titled “What Is Literature?” because it provides a profound and precise delineation. They describe literature as the creation of experiences “in which readers can participate and from which they may gain a greater awareness and understanding of their world,” and then describe it as “not only an aid to living but a means of living” (emphasis added).1

By way of illustration, they describe how an interest in eagles might lead us to glean from an encyclopedia much fascinating information about them—yet we might feel a little disappointed, as though “we had grasped the feathers of the eagle but not its soul.” Then they cite Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle”—”He clasps the crag with crooked hands. . . . Ringed with the azure world, he stands. . . . He watches from his mountain walls, / And like a thunderbolt he falls”—and we thrill to the difference.

The authors use this example to “show” us the differences in how literary language works rather than simply telling us. Now they can deliver to us their culminating and glorious insight, which lands with the force of recognition:

[The function of literature is] not to tell us about experience but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it. It is a means of allowing us, through the imagination, to live more fully, more deeply, more richly, and with greater awareness. 2

If you have any writer’s blood in you, it will be stirring, telling you to shed it gladly to make such a gift possible for your readers. Because writing books is not only a “means of making a living” for writers. It is also “making a means of living” for readers.

1 Laurence Perrine & Thomas R. Arp, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, 8th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 4.

3 John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 121.

2 Perrine & Arp, 4.

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