Many writing guides advise, “Show, don’t tell.” Bad advice. You tell readers about things, but you show things to them. I can tell you that my mother was the worst cook in the history of the world. Or I can show you:
My mother boiled everything for eight hours, vegetables, fruits, meats, destroying all food value. She used no herbs or spices, except salt. Everything she cooked turned gray. When I was 18, I was served rare roast beef at a banquet. I turned to my companions and asked, “What is this?” I did not recognize it as food, much less meat.
You need a combination of showing and telling; essentially, the telling frames the showing.
David Finkel covered the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, focusing on one family in Los Gatos, beginning like this:
Patty Hermann is leading the way through her house. The kitchen is bad – cracked walls, broken dishes. The dining room is bad, too – more cracks, plaster everywhere. Then comes the living room, the room that two days after the earthquake, Hermann won’t go in.
In this room, there is no longer an outside wall. There is only a wide hole where the wall was, and a sagging, unsupported roof. There is also a TV set, still plugged in, still tuned to the channel showing the World Series, but Patty Hermann is too afraid to retrieve it.
“We are working up our nerve,” Mark Hermann, Patty’s husband, says.
“Sickening, isn’t it?” says Patty. “It was,” she adds, “a spectacular house.”
Finkel shows us the devastation and the family’s reaction to it, with a little telling: “The kitchen is bad – cracked walls, broken dishes. The dining room is bad, too.” Patty tells us, “It was…a spectacular house.” Finkel follows her statement with a little telling of his own, making a transition into context: “It was, indeed, and it is no more. Instead, it is unsalvageable. It is the most severely damaged structure in Los Gatos, and, in its own way, it illustrates how there wasn’t one earthquake in northern California Tuesday, but two.”
Later, he returns to showing: “the cafe next door with the pink napkins still folded on the plates,” and the family camped out on their lawn because they’re afraid of their trees.
Showing has more power than telling, as Finkel shows you above: “The kitchen is bad” versus “ “cracked walls, broken dishes.” Showing hits readers harder.
My favorite essay, Hank Stuever’s “The Couch that Warped Space Time,” switches back and forth between telling about cosmology and showing how to get two sofas up a staircase:
But right now let us turn our attention to the size of the universe. Theoretical physicists would like very much for the cosmos to fit nicely into the mathematical space they’ve calculated for it, only, of course, it doesn’t. There is an indescribable longing to know what we’re dealing with here, and in how many dimensions a tidy “final theory” explaining both the subatomic and the celestial. You could go mad trying. Einstein died without resolving the scale issue, and so the universe goes on not quite fitting. Some physicists have deemed it larger than previously thought; others see it as smaller. One day it is older than they ever estimated; the next day, younger.
This does not mean that occasionally someone won’t come along with another TOE, which stands for “theory of everything” — a superstring theory, for example-to explain away the heavens above and the atoms within. Everyone grabs a corner of the universe and lifts. Papers are presented at Los Alamos.
By now you may have figured out the problem. Neither sofa — the Jennifer Convertible nor the Hecht’s Special — will fit up the stairs of the couple’s three-story row house in Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington, which was built about 120 years ago, shortly after the supposed Big Bang, when things were small.
The rest of the piece continues this comic alternation of telling and showing, abstract and specific. The most graphics parts show the sofas and people struggling with them.
How do you achieve such power? First, you look for patterns that you can tell, and details that will show those patterns, and you write them in your notes. You might jot, “Shoes too small.” But then you’d look for what made you draw that conclusion: “Wincing with each step.” You might note that the chef’s a bully, and put down: “Screaming ‘idiot,’ throwing bacon, smacked sous chef with ladle.” If your notes only say, “Chef bully,” you have to remember what made you think that.
Then you use specific details to create images, active verbs to capture action, and quotes to convey character. In REVISION, you recast long spells of telling with showing. But you can’t do that unless you GATHERED what you need to show in the first place.
[Know any good examples of showing and telling?]