On showing versus telling in writing: Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs.
It’s Show and Tell Time!
Remember back in grammar school how we looked forward to our class’s Show and Tell time? No? Well, maybe schools cut S&T from the curriculum a while back, like everyday P.E., and the latest victim from those “dear old Golden Rule days,” cursive writing. But I digress.
It was a Friday morning, about a decade past the midway point of last century. The school year was drawing to a close, and the weekend beckoned. Mrs. Fussel was a doozy for show and tell. A “learning experience,” she called it, a time for us fourth-graders to “expand our imagination and creativity.” As I recall, there were no hard and fast rules about what we brought to show off and tell about, no forbidden items to send school officials into a frenzied panic. Pocket knives, slingshots, lizards, frogs—all had passed muster and drawn oohs, ahs, and occasional shrieks from girls in our classroom. Heck, one time Billy Ross even brought a big rat snake he’d caught, and Mrs. Fussel let anybody brave enough have a turn touching or holding it.
So I figured I was on safe ground when I opened the grocery sack and withdrew my prized collection of black widow spiders. As I set it on the edge of teacher’s desk, Mrs. Fussel screamed, shoved back the chair and vacated her position at the head of the room. In her hasty retreat a stack of work booklets tipped over, knocking the goldfish bowl to the floor. The bowl shattered, the spiders scattered, and my classmates clattered—some racing after Mrs. Fussel as she waved them into the hallway and safety, others attacking my treasured arachnid collection with books and shoes and other handy weaponry.
By lunchtime the show and tell incident was the talk of the school. My classmates wowed friends from other rooms with tales of bravery and narrow escapes from the jaws of death. One phrase, expressed in a dozen different ways, has remained with me throughout all the passing years: “Boy, you should’ve seen it!” The eyewitnesses to the event—my classmates—saw it happen. For them, it was a much more powerful experience than those who were told about it. “Wow, I wish I could’ve been there and saw that!” was a common response from the listeners.
Yes, the creepy-crawly caper happened as recorded. The classroom was evacuated and the custodians called in to make certain none of my show and tell stars survived. New rules were put in place to insure students and faculty wouldn’t be subjected to danger in the future. I escaped with a stern talking-to and a note for my parents to sign. I didn’t fare so well at home, but that’s another story.
I use this life experience to illustrate a well-worn but important phrase for all writers: Show, don’t Tell! Which group of school kids experienced the spider incident on a deeper level? Those who saw it, those who witnessed it as it occurred in real time. They were shown the teacher’s reaction, the goldfish bowl crashing to the floor, the venomous spiders scurrying to escape, the pandemonium that followed. In contrast, their friends in other classrooms only experienced the chaotic scene by being told about it. To them it was secondhand information, in the past instead of real time.
Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. Don’t relegate your readers to after-action listeners. SHOW, DON’T TELL!