Showing AND Telling

“Show, don’t tell.” Is there a fiction writer out there who isn’t sick of hearing that command? Consider this: when telling your own story, you must show and tell.

While on my cross-country road trip interviewing artists, I ate a loaded hot dog at Packo's in Toledo, Ohio. The restaurant's window display shows the cast of M*A*S*H eating Packo's cuisine, while telling how Corporal Klinger's longing for the restaurant was mentioned on the show seven times.

This was the lesson shared recently by two masters of the personal essay–Keith Woods and Lonnae O’Neal Parker–at the “Write Your Heart Out” conference sponsored by the Poynter Institute at Georgetown University. But the lesson applies to fiction writers as well, whether you’re crafting a query letter for an agent, a bio for your book’s dust jacket, or the opening remarks at your first book reading. Mastering this art can also improve your fiction.

What does it mean to both show and tell? This is my personal take, but you could say it’s really no different from the “show and tell” we all remember from grade school. You have to show what you’re presenting–pass it around the classroom, letting your classmates touch it, smell it and, for that weird kid who eats paste, taste it–while also telling why you’ve chosen to share it.

Here are some key takeaways from the Poynter session:

  • Connect readers with the sensual: O’Neal Parker said this is no different than writing quality fiction–use all of the senses and allow the reader to feel the scene with you.
  • Connect readers with yourself: This is a critical step, O’Neal Parker said. “I find a place for me” in that scene, she said, and after the reader has experienced the tactile, she shares what it means to her. When done well, the reader will connect, even to feelings or scenes different from his or her own experience. “Can I find my story in yours?” is what the reader is asking, Woods said.
  • Connect readers sparingly: The selection of details should both connect with the narrator’s “telling” of his or her state of mind, and the best way to do this is to reveal just enough show and tell. This allows the reader to find the true meaning on his or her own. “Have your details point to what readers need to know,” Woods said. “Don’t overload with detail,” O”Neal Parker added.
  • Connect readers after retelling: The most successful personal narratives, Woods said, come from repeated tellings before writing. “I’ve told the story many times before I write it,” Woods said. It doesn’t have to be oral storytelling predating the writing. “I’ve already thought about the story a lot. I’ve written it in my head,” said O’Neal Parker.

When fiction writers are told to show, not tell, implied in that is that there must be some telling. After all, it’s called storytelling, not storyshowing. But writing a personal essay is a great exercise in finding balance in showing and telling, a balance that can easily be exported to one’s fiction writing.

How do you utilize both showing and telling in your creative endeavors?

NOTE TO READERS: A big thanks to Jon M of @ThinDifference for nominating The Artist’s Road as a top-10 blog for writers in the Write to Done annual contest. I was aware of the contest but hadn’t considered competing, and a review of those nominated to date suggests there are plenty of deserving candidates. That review also makes clear many of these sites are encouraging votes; quick bursts of nominations for one blog coincide with tweets and Facebook posts and other outreach from those bloggers. So I might as well play along too, right? I’d love for you to head over there and add The Artist’s Road as a nominee, and please let me know you’ve done so. I will be eternally grateful, although I can’t promise that gratitude will lead to any financial remuneration. The deadline to submit is December 10th.

15 thoughts on “Showing AND Telling

  1. Patrick, good article as always! I particularly agree with the point of connecting your reader but giving them just enough so they come up with the point/idea on their own, rather than telling them what to think.

    As you know, I work very hard to keep that balance in my own work as a visual artist. I feel that there is nothing more damaging to a person’s experience of my work than trying to force-feed them the experience *I* want them to have, rather than allowing them to experience whatever comes up from them because I’ve guided them to the idea but not whacked them over the head with it. 🙂


  2. Great food for thought. There is certainly a place for the author’s or narrator’s commentary on what has been shown in the writing, just like during show and tell at school. Perfect analogy.

    It kind of reminds me of the left/right brain debate. In creativity circles, the right brain seems to be elevated to a higher status than the left, but in reality, we use and need both all the time!

    Neither the left vs. right or show vs. tell dichotomy is really a choice that has to be made.


    1. Ah, Sue, you brought up one of my favorite debates, the left brain/right brain! As you know that’s something discussed on this blog occasionally, but I hadn’t thought of it as analogous to this until now. Thanks!


  3. Great post, Patrick. I’m often self-conscious about sharing too many “me me me” experiences in my writing, but each time I’ve shared something about my own ‘story’, I’ve received feedback from readers how they can relate to it and apply it to their own experience/life/need. Hey, that’s what I always hope for in my heart of hearts. D’oh!

    I really like your list of takeaways, especially the points of not overloading the reader with too many details, but giving them just enough that they will be able to find themselves in the scene, through the filter of their own experience, and that reading it will be meaningful and useful for them.

    I’ve seen you do this most eloquently in The Clear Monkey, for example. I related very intimately with little Paddy, even though I had a different experience as a child.


    1. Carole Jane, this is exactly what I’ve experienced with The Artist’s Road:

      “I’m often self-conscious about sharing too many “me me me” experiences in my writing, but each time I’ve shared something about my own ‘story’, I’ve received feedback from readers how they can relate to it and apply it to their own experience/life/need.”

      Thank you for the kind words on The Clear Monkey. I’ll confess that while I focus on creative nonfiction now, I originally wrote fiction, and I think you can see some of that in my emphasis on scene and dialogue.


  4. Love the tie-in to grade school show-and-tell. Forgot about that rather odd part of our upbringing. The advice to “reveal just enough show and tell” is fabulous. Besides, I’m tired of hearing the “show don’t tell” mantra. Yours is much more realistic and refreshing.

    I am personally a reader who enjoys the “tell” part of narrative maybe more than anything – when we can get inside the character (or author’s) head. And the action, in my mind, is simply what helps keep that “telling” from becoming mundane. I know – I look at it much differently than most. Wonderful post, Patrick. Enjoyed the tips!


  5. Patrick, thank you for sharing these incredible take-aways with us! 🙂 I think my favorite is the “connect readers sparingly” tidbit. For one, I consider myself having a head-start on this, with my reporting and journalism background. But several years ago, I was part of a writing critique group run by my English professor friend, Renee Ronika. And upon reviewing one of my essays, she gave me this same piece of advice. Trust your reader. Share just enough, but don’t overdo it. You’ll lose the flow of your story/narrative. Ever since, I always watch myself for overdescriptions, and realize when I catch myself in the act, my writing always turns out SO MUCH BETTER.


    1. I’m glad that resonated with you, Shari. I’ve been reading a fair amount of Joan Didion lately to get a sense of a master at sharing just enough. Unlike us, she was already an accomplished creative writer before she performed journalism–I read in an interview recently she would take magazine assignments because they were easy and paid well–but she brings a journalistic eye for detail to her writing, letting the scene paint the story, then adds a line or two of “tell” to punch it home.


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