An Easy Way To Show Not Tell #amwriting

You know what that means, don’t you: show not tell? If you’ve just started writing, you might not. It means that, although OF COURSE you sometimes just need to say, “The path descended at a 45-degree angle,” sometimes it’s more effective to show things than it is to state them.

Show not tell

I’m reading Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH — all right, okay, so I never read it before — and he’s a freakin’ genius at combining showing and telling.

Behind him hobbled Granma, who had survived only because she was as mean as her husband. She had held her own with a shrill ferocious religiosity that was as lecherous and as savage as anything Grampa could offer. Once, after a meeting, while she was still speaking in tongues, she fired both barrels of a shotgun at her husband, ripping one of his buttocks nearly off, and after that he admired her and did not try to torture her as children torture bugs. As she walked she hiked her Mother Hubbard up to her knees, and she bleated her shrill terrible war cry: “Pu-raise Gawd fur vittory.”

Writing don’t git much better’n that. If Steinbeck had said, “Grampa was mean, and so was Granma, he would have conveyed the gist of his information, but he wouldn’t have made it live for you. As it is, these two are like a cold rain when you’re snug indoors; enjoyable to perceive, as long as you don’t have to actually experience it.

Here’s a conversation between Tom Joad, just out of prison for manslaughter, and an ex-preacher, Casy, that approaches the easy way I’m going to suggest:

Casy regarded him broodingly. “Somepin I like to ast you,” he said. “Somepin that been eatin’ on me.”

“Go ahead. I’ll talk, sometimes.”

“Well” –the preacher said slowly– “here’s you that I baptized right when I was in the glory roof-tree. Got little hunks of Jesus jumpin’ outa my mouth that day. You won’t remember ’cause you was busy pullin’ that pigtail.”

“I remember,” said Joad. “That was Susy Little. She bust my finger a year later.”

“Well–did you take any good outa that baptizin’? Was your ways better?”

Joad thought about it. “No-o-o, can’t say as I felt anything.”

“Well–did you take any bad from it? Think hard.”

Joad picked up the bottle and took a swig. “They wasn’t nothing in it, good or bad. I just had fun.” He handed the flask to the preacher.

He sighed and drank and looked at the low level of the whisky and took another tiny drink. “That’s good,” he said. “I got to worryin’ about whether in messin’ around maybe I done somebody a hurt.”

Almost entirely dialog, and that brings me to the easy way: If you want to get more showing and less telling into a scene, pretend it’s a scene from a play or a tv show or a movie. Scripts can’t waste time with straight information, unless the information has no other way to be communicated. Scripts embed information about characters in dialog and action, and information about characters and action in visuals.

Go thou and do likewise.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Show these things I’m telling: Edna walked nervously to the corner store after dark. Jacob hated to break up with Paul, so he manipulated Paul into doing the breaking up.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

You may also like...

One thought on “An Easy Way To Show Not Tell #amwriting

  1. Jane

    September 8, 2014 at 9:50am

    Like this post. It shows rather than tells.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. Sarah Allen

    September 8, 2014 at 4:15pm

    Oh my word, those Steinbeck quotes are amazing! That first one especially…such a fantastic example of showing plus telling. Good examples like that help things make so much more sense.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply

Leave a Reply, If You Ple-az

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.