Unpacking “Show Don’t Tell” – A Beginner’s Thoughts

Thus far the aspect of WRIT 100 that I’ve found most challenging is unpacking the writers’ cliche – “show don’t tell”. The expression inadequately summarizes a set of common issues that create bland writing. Below I break out 4 axioms that I’m actively practicing in an attempt to conquer my first year writing course.

Use Details to Allude to Depth

I love abstractions. My innate interest is in what people think and feel, not necessarily the details of what they look like, say or do. My typical inclination is to go right there. “Jonathan wrestled with the decision before him”. Look at me using an active verb to delve into the depths of Jonathan’s psyche… brilliant! Sadly it’s not so easy.

In order to engage your audience you need to paint a picture with your words, which alludes to what’s happening behind the scene, enabling them to imagine the depth for themselves. This depth is the home of the greater truth, the resonance, the unspoken “meaning”. This is generally what’s meant by “show don’t tell”. Yet the expression is deceptive because you don’t indiscriminately show everything. An attempt to paint all the possible details will befuddle. You must be frugal, discerning and fresh with your words.

Be Frugal

Write exactly what you mean with the fewest possible words. Be specific, as opposed to generic, and concrete, as opposed to abstract. Yet be sparing with the quantity of words.

There is a hierarchy of power within words descending from verbs, nouns, adjectives to adverbs. Use verbs and nouns, but unless necessary limit yourself to one concrete specific adjective per noun. Attempt to eliminate adverbs altogether by being exact in your verb choice (except in drama). Applying this guidance will help you contain your word count. It will also encourage you to be discerning in your word choice.

Be Discerning

Choose exactly the right word… every time. Does it mean exactly what you mean? Does it intentionally riff on something hidden in the depths? Does it possess the right sound? If not is there a better word? If not is this sentence necessary? What are you trying to allude to? What new sentence can help you get there?

Be Fresh

Avoid common expressions. They are too easy to interpret and therefore fail to engage the audience’s imagination. Where appropriate attempt to describe ordinary things in fresh ways. For example if the sparks are symbolic in your work, don’t just write “sparks”, bring imaginative words to bear to paint the picture. Make your audience think about them in ways they never thought they would, employ vivid details that waltz.