How to Show and Tell in Your Writing

Silhouette of a person in front of a night sky full of stars and galaxies.
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Writers often receive the advice "show, don't tell" and aren't sure how to put it into action. Some of the confusion derives from the fact that most good writers actually show and tell. They may move seamlessly between the two, and even their telling is often rich with sensory details and figurative language. Telling segues into full-blown scenes, and scenes into reflection or commentary.

Here is an example of how showing and telling are interwoven in the opening of JoAnn Beard's famous essay, “The Fourth State of Matter.” A good exercise for writers is to look at any piece of writing you admire closely and track this movement.

Beard opens her piece telling us, The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance...” and then moves, almost imperceptibly, from describing what's been happening repeatedly to a specific moment occurring within the real time of the essay.

She totters on her broomstick legs into the hallway and over the doorsill into the kitchen, makes a sharp left at the refrigerator — careful, almost went down — then a straightaway to the door. I sleep on my feet, in the cold of the doorway, waiting. Here she comes. Lift her down the two steps. She pees and then stands, Lassie in a ratty coat, gazing out at the yard.

In the porchlight the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a chalkboard...

We see exactly what the narrator sees and imagines (the squirrels turning over in their sleep). Then Beard moves beyond the real time of the piece to foreshadow events to come: “like something erased on a chalkboard” foreshadows a mass shooting at her university lab that will result in the deaths of her academic space physicist co-workers. That simile adds dimension and offers a hint of authorial reflection. It moves us beyond the real time of the essay to the perspective of the narrator who's lived beyond the events she's describing.     

The paragraph continues on, in scene.

Over the neighbor's house, Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings.

Then, seamlessly, this paragraph moves into telling the reader vital facts that go beyond what is seen.

“[Jupiter] has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe.

When writers show and tell they do more than just flatly report on what's happened in the narrative line of the story. They reflect, they interpret, they use metaphorical language to add dimension. They intersperse reporting with reflection. Even their telling is rich with sensory detail that blurs the line between showing and telling. Subjecting a piece of work to the kind of close reading demonstrated here can help us know when and how to show and tell, and the best ways to do both.

Deborah A. Lott, MFA
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