Show Don't Tell – Decoded

by Doug Lipman

lipmanIf you’ve hung around storytelling (or acting or writing) long enough, you’ve probably heard the familiar instruction:

“Show, don’t tell.”

This maxim points toward a helpful idea: in order to make a scene or sentence maximally vivid for your listeners, you need to “show” what happened, rather than “tell” ABOUT what happened.

Here’s a simple example of “telling”:

Version 1. Sheila’s apartment floor was a disgusting mess.

In contrast, here’s one way to begin “showing” the mess:

Version 2. Sheila kicked the pile of dirty clothes out of the doorway. Unfortunately, they skidded against the night stand, dislodging the pile of dirty dishes stacked on it. Crash! ..

As you can see, Version 2 can help a listener imagine the exact nature of the mess, rather than simply accept the vaguer “was a mess.”

Three Problems?

As useful as “show don’t tell” can be, it is fuzzy advice, with three serious problems.

Problem #1: You need both

“Show don’t tell” makes you think that “telling” is always bad. In truth, only certain parts of your story are worth being “shown”: the parts that your listener needs to imagine fully in order to experience the central drift of your story. Everything else should be “told.”

In other words, suppose you are a painter and have been told that bright colors stand out most, so you paint everything in bright colors. The result? Nothing stands out.

Problem #2: It’s not black and white

“Show don’t tell” suggests that either you are “telling” or you are “showing.” In fact, both represent adjustments that can be made in various ways. The real power is to understand the range of choices available to you, then to choose the best adjustments that suit your purposes.

Painters don’t just use white and black; they use the entire scale of grays.

Problem #3: It’s two different choices

“Showing vs. Telling” is not a single choice. It actually consists of two different adjustments:

a. Concreteness. Notice how these three sentences get progressively more concrete:

Her floor was cluttered.

Her floor was strewn with dirty clothes.

Her floor was strewn with a full week’s worth of dirty jeans and t-shirts.

A “cluttered floor” is more concrete than “a mess”. But specifying that it’s cluttered with dirty clothes is still more concrete, etc.

The more concrete the description, the more vividly your listeners are likely to imagine.

b. Interpretive Language. “Telling” can involve words that interpret the actions or descriptions in the story for the listener—rather than letting the listener interpret for herself. Notice how the language in these three sentences gets progressively more interpretive:

Her floor was cluttered.

Her floor was dirty.

Her floor was a disgusting mess.

“Cluttered” is less judgmental than “dirty,” which, in turn, is less judgmental than “a disgusting mess.”

The less you interpret for your listeners, the more likely they are to create their own interpretations. If I tell you what to think about something, you might or might not accept my interpretation. But if you interpret it yourself, you become actively committed to the understanding you create.

Clarity—At Last!

Now we’re in a position to correctly restate “show don’t tell”:

Adjust each piece of your story, so that every piece is optimally (more or less, as required by your goals for the story) imagined and interpreted by your listeners.

More-concrete descriptions will be more vividly imagined.

 Less-interpretive descriptions involve the listener more in interpreting for themselves.

Now that you understand what “show don’t tell” really consists of, you can work to perfect the separate skills – and you can teach those skills to others.

About Doug

In 1970, Doug Lipman accidentally began telling a story to a group of highly resistant, emotionally disturbed adolescents; within moments, they ceased resisting. Since then, he has used training, writing, and coaching—in many settings, industries, and countries of the world—to help people discover the transformative power of storytelling.
Doug is the author of award-winning books, including Improving Your Storytelling and The Storytelling Coach: How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People’s Best. He has performed across the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Austria, Belgium, Singapore and New Zealand. Doug was a founding board member of NSN.  Don’t miss out on Doug’s workshop on “Perfecting Your Hidden Storytelling Skills” at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference – register today:

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