The Ol’ “Show, Don’t Tell” Thing
by Jennifer Paros
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
~ William Wordsworth
I’ve never given a lot of thought to the ol’ show, don’t tell directive in writing because I thought it was easily grasped. Instead of saying “She was sad,” I should describe my character staring out the window with tears in her eyes. Instead of writing “The dog was frantic,” the dog could be shown running in circles barking. But recently, my sixteen year-old son put another spin on it.
I was (admittedly) nagging him to brush his teeth, though I am very aware of his anti-convention, anti-establishment, anti-rules penchant. He lodged the electric toothbrush in his mouth, acquiescing to my request while, in garbled elocution, he argued his position. As I listened, occasionally interjecting the familiar case for regular teeth brushing, I was aware of both the rightness and imperfection of both our positions.
As the contention waned, I noticed his shirt was too small (he’s recently grown to almost six feet and I haven’t thoroughly weeded through his clothing). I went and searched his closet and was about to tell him to change when instead I just draped the new shirt over the back of his desk chair and went on to my own business.
Minutes later, he emerged, apologizing for the discord, and then mentioned how I had clearly noticed his undersized shirt and kindly left another for him. He added that that’s the way to do it. “Show, don’t tell”, he said. Even with this admonition, his appreciation was obvious. If, as he’d said, I’d “told” not “shown,” he wouldn’t have recognized my true intention, which was to help, not harass.
In writing, show, don’t tell encourages us to balance exposition and summation with more action and imagery to help readers come to their own conclusions rather than being told what to think. The reader is allowed to enter a world instead of just hearing about it. My son’s version of the writing adage takes the idea further and elucidates how muddled one’s intentions can become when telling is relied upon too heavily. One would think the directness of telling provides the greatest clarity, but there are many levels on which we communicate, and it works best if they **all** are in service to our true intention.
Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes her experience with non-verbal communication in her book, My Stroke of Insight, which tells the dramatic story of her stroke and recovery. After she had the operation to stop her brain hemorrhage, she was without language skills or any working memory of her former career. But still she recounts her sensitivity to people’s true meanings and intentions. If the doctors or nurses were saying the “right” seemingly caring things but their words did not match their energy, she would withdraw. They had to show her by the way they felt to her. Her ability to read and speak had been lost but she could still read intention.
Be yourself. Above all, let who you are, what you are, what you believe, shine through every sentence you write ...
~ John Jakes
Taylor’s experience corroborates Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory in which he emphasizes that if a writer is “writing truly enough” the reader will have the feeling of things rather than having to be told of them, negating their necessary inclusion. Hemingway said, “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” What can be seen or what is told should make up a small portion of what is actually communicated.
In the area of parenting there is an emphasis on modeling good behavior rather than just giving directives. That’s another version of show, don’t tell. But for someone like my son, it’s not always enough. He asks that that good behavior be enacted from a free mind – not one only in service to rules or social expectation. When he feels that authenticity, then he brushes his teeth – without issue. My son wants to act from his own integrity and be guided by those free and honest in their intention. We are all longing to be shown that genuineness in others and certainly in the stories in which we invest – whether as reader or writer.
What is it to “write truly” as Hemingway suggested? It might mean being so immersed in and committed to one’s truth that it is naturally conveyed both through what we show or don’t show, what we tell or don’t tell, our choice of both actions and words. Live truly – write truly.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.