Telling a Great Story Tuesday: Show Instead of Tell

Before I offer today’s “Telling a Great Story” tidbit, I feel the need to clarify that I do not have an English degree. I have a B.S. in math and a law degree — hardly the right credentials to be giving advice on writing. However, unlike the law and mathematics, writing is a passion of mine, and I’ve spent countless hours writing for the sure joy of it. I’ve studied not for a grade, but for the geeked-out pleasure of crafting the perfect phrase, or even just choosing the exact right word. So all that to say, adopt my Tuesday tidbits with the full knowledge that I’m not the most credentialed writing coach in the world!  Yet the lack of the right letters behind my name does not diminish my enthusiasm for sharing what little I know. As I’ve said, I’m psyched out of my mind about this! So thank you in advance for reading.

Showing instead of telling is a maxim of good writing; it is so universal that I don’t know who deserves credit for it. But here’s how it works. Your reader will be more invested in whatever you are writing if you show instead of tell, at least some of the time.

Example

Tell:        Sally was tired.

Show:    Sally slouched in her desk, and looked at the clock again.   She strained to keep her eyes open.

What is ultimately communicated is the same — the show version has more texture and detail, but the reader ends up with the same information. When I’ve tried to get my older sons to understand this principle, little Will said, “it’s like the reader has to figure it out.” And that’s not a bad way of looking at it. If you guide the reader to a conclusion in an artful way, instead of demanding that they make a certain conclusion, you’ll have a more active and invested audience.

This is a super easy way for writers of any age to improve their writing! Just look at any declarative statement and rewrite it, leading the reader to make the same conclusion through a word picture. Even just changing “Sally was tired,” to “Sally yawned” would be an improvement.

Of course, you can overdo this, and leave your reader longing for a simple declarative statement. But unless you are hopelessly prone to flowery prose, that’s probably not a danger.

Another mistake is doing both — telling and showing. We have all seen writers combine the two statements above (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this all too often myself), but that’s redundant. If you are telling, then showing becomes a violation of the cardinal rule of writing, which is to be concise. You need to trust your reader that when you imply something they’ll get it. You do not need to tell them.

So, time for some “show instead of tell” homework. You have two options, and of course you get extra credit if you do both. Rewrite the following:

  1. Timmy screamed when he saw her.
  2. Jesus changed my life.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

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