Show and Tell
Writing instructors and editors often dole out the suggestion that writers should show rather than telling, but it’s really pretty abstract (telling!) advice. I’ll offer an example of telling vs. showing:
Wilfred and Bea argued vehemently. She insisted that he had pilfered her breakfast. Exasperated, he accused her of the same.
“Bea, why in Heaven’s name are you eating my oatmeal?” Wilfred asked.
“What ever do you mean? I cooked this bowl of oatmeal not five minutes ago and walked out to check on Ma while it cooled.”
“No, I cooked the oatmeal. You know good and well I have a bowl of peaches ‘n cream oatmeal every morning, and I resent your stealing my breakfast.” His moustache twitched as he said it, and his glasses flashed in the harsh fluorescent light.
“I’ll say it once more. I opened the packet of oatmeal. I poured milk in the oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in the microwave. And I pushed the buttons to cook it.” Bea rapped her knuckles on the table more forcefully with each pronouncement. “The breakfast is mine!”
His moustache twitched again, and a vein pulsed on his forehead. He looked at the oatmeal and at Bea, then back at the oatmeal. It was probably too cool by now anyway. “Fine,” he said, and he shuffled to the pantry for a fresh packet. He always had peaches ‘n cream on hand. “But keep your damn hands off my oatmeal this time. I’ll use the red bowl.”
I won’t pretend that this is award-winning writing, but what I’m trying to demonstrate is that instead of using bland phrasing and adverbs and adjectives to tell a little story, I can make it a lot more interesting, memorable, and even (hopefully) a little funny by dramatizing it. I here show a scene rather than just telling you vaguely what happened.
Of course, there are less extreme examples too. There’s certainly no need to make a big dramatic fuss over every little sentence you write. Take a sentence like this one:
He ran home swiftly.
It surely conveys the important information, but it’s neither memorable nor especially interesting. It doesn’t really leave much of a picture in your brain, and if you’re like me, writing that makes pictures in your brain makes a bigger impression than writing that doesn’t. So we might rewrite the sentence as follows:
He ran home through a blur of trees, his hair trailing him like the tail of a comet.
Again, I’m not exactly polishing a Pulitzer over here, so my example may not be the best (maybe it’s too figurative, and it’s definitely a little silly), but perhaps it demonstrates the point that sometimes you can replace a tired adverb or adjective with a more striking descriptive phrase.
As with most anything, you can certainly have too much of a good thing here. Writing that doesn’t relax with simple, declarative sentences from time to time can become overwrought and exhausting to read. But if you find yourself using lots of adverbs and adjectives — telling by using abstractions and labels rather than by showing actions and traits — you might try to mix it up a little and see if you like the results.