Show Don’t Tell
Writing more than just the facts, Ma’am!
by Cheri L. R. Taylor, M. F. A.
I always encourage my writers to stick very close to the principle of ‘show don’t tell’in their writing. Even the driest, most academically perfect work can benefit from this, one of the cardinal rules of writing. This applies to memoir, fiction, self-help, and any other kind of writing as far as I am concerned!‘Show Don’t Tell’means that you want to write in such a way that the reader feels as if they are in the moment with you, or your characters. Let’s examine a very brief paragraph and see how applying ‘show don’t tell’makes a difference.
“Alice really wanted some candy. She went to the store.She thought she wanted butterscotch candies, but when she got there, she decided that she wanted chocolate fudge. She found out that she didn’t have any money, so she left.”
The previous paragraph tells us what happened. It tells us that Alice wanted candy and what kind she chose. It tells us. But in it’s detachment, it completely leaves us out of the experience. As a reader, I do not feel particularly engaged in this paragraph, nor this character. I get the facts, but it tells me nothing about who she is or why I should be invested in this moment. Let’s look at the same paragraph again with the application of ‘Show Don’t Tell’.
“Alice felt a grumble in her stomach. She knew she really should be heading for the fresh fruit kiosk only a few feet away, but her nose was carrying her swiftly to the candy shop instead. There was a soft, sweet, buttery scent coming from the doorway. It carried out into the corridor of the mall, and she had to make herself slow down so as not to run as soon as she got her first whiff!
Once inside, Alice’s eyes widened. She’d never seen such an array of candies in her life. They were displayed in glass jars that allowed the light to pour through each type of candy, giving each one a delightful red, green, yellow, orange glow! She was almost overwhelmed by choice, but eventually she decided that the butterscotch discs were beckoning to her. As she moved toward the jar, another scent interrupted her; fudge. Not just fudge, but fresh, home-made, fudge. Alice’s mouth was watering so much so fast, she thought she might not be able to speak! She dashed to the counter and ordered a full pound of the gorgeous, glimmering fudge. It had a sheen on it like melted butter, and she watched as the knife danced through it, anticipation making her hop on her heels.
She rushed with her treasure to the cash register, and stuffed her hand into her pocket for the money she’d tucked in that morning. Her fingers came up empty. She stopped and felt again, and again! No! The money was gone! She checked her other pocket, and the pocket of her coat; nope, no money. She looked desolately upon the beautiful slab of fudge as she slid it back across the counter and left, barely holding back tears.”
Now, obviously, engaging in ‘show don’t tell’in this case, turned our one paragraph into three, but which was the more enjoyable read? Could you smell that beckoning scent that pulled Alice into the candy store? Did you picture the glistening colors of the candies in the jars? Was your mouth watering with the description of the fudge?
Effective writing is more than simply delivering the facts. Engaging the reader takes an appeal to the senses, an invitation for them to suspend their current reality and engage in the one you are creating on the page. The paragraphs above invite the reader into the scene, offering a treat for all the senses, and an emotional connection to the character and her plight.
By appealing to all the senses and the reader’s emotions with ‘Show Don’t Tell’, you will bring your readers along with you, and keep them spellbound in the world you create on the page!
About Cheri L. R. Taylor:
Cheri L. R. Taylor holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College and is currently a writing instructor at Macomb College. She has facilitated writing workshops with the Arts in the Spirit Program at Oakwood Hospital and as a Writer in Residence with the Inside Out Literary Arts Project conducting writing workshops in the Detroit Public Schools. She has four chapbooks of poetry and has been published in Ellipsis, Awakenings Review, The CaféReview, Reintigration Today, Clean Sheets, Current Magazine, Rattle, Third Wednesday, Strange Michigan, Jezebel, Love Notes, An Antholgy and others. Her book of poems, Wolf Maiden Moon was released from Pudding House Press in 2010. She recently released her first novel, Leaving Walloon to positive reviews. Leaving Walloon is currently under consideration to become a motion picture.
Cheri also hosts her own weekly radio show on A2zen.fm, Creative Energy in YOU, Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern, which is dedicated to teaching people how to enjoy creative energy, and joyful writing in their lives!