When I visited Los Angeles not long after the 1992 riots, a home-town writer told me a story that made me feel what it was like to live there in those uncertain times.
His drive home passed a large police station. He was always on alert as he drove by; everyone thought there could be more trouble at any time, and he assumed that a police station might be a key target.
And then one day, when he was still some distance away, he saw smoke billowing out from the building. This is it, he thought. They’ve set the station on fire. Visions of escalating chaos, this time in his own neighborhood, raced through his head.
He drove closer, on high alert—and discovered cops swarming all around the outside of the building, intent on…
…the burgers being cooked on a large barbecue grill.
I think about this example when I hear a writer advise: “show, don’t tell.” That’s a way of writing that puts readers inside of the story’s action.
He could have just told me, “It was a scary time in LA. We thought things might go up in flames at any minute.” How long do you think I would have remembered that?
Instead, I can still recall small details of his story. That’s because he conveyed his tale (trust me, it was done in a much more riveting fashion than my retelling here), in such a way that I smelled the smoke and felt the sweat that trickled down his neck—and then shared his bark of laughter when it became clear that the only things to be charred that evening were the burgers.
Here’s a way to give your young writers some “show, don’t tell” practice. Ask them to write a scene that features a character experiencing an intense emotion—but don’t allow them to use the actual word (or any synonyms) that represent that emotion. Instead, ask your students to make the emotion evident through their character’s actions. In other words, if the emotion is anger, they can’t use the words “angry” or “mad” or “raging.” Instead, they could show the character stomping his foot, or screaming and tearing at her hair.
A “show, don’t tell” kind of writer won’t just tell me there’s a dead fish on the beach; he or she will have me smelling it for an entire chapter.