To be able to learn how to get somewhere, I have to drive the route myself. Riding shotgun doesn’t work if I’m trying to memorize the route; somehow the feeling of the necessary twists and turns has to seep up through the steering wheel and into the pores of my hands for me to be able to reliably retain it. In other words, I have to experience it as a driver and not just as a passenger.
I think that’s essentially what writers mean when they oﬀer the mysterious writing advice: “Show, don’t tell.” They’re advising student writers to put the reader in the driver’s seat, to oﬀer the reader a deep level of engagement with the experience of the story, rather than just taking them along for the ride.
Here’s an example. If in my story I write, “It was an early spring rain,” I am simply “telling” you about the weather and the season. Here, however, are two very different ways of “showing” you a spring rainfall:
Version one: “Plip. Plop. Ploop. Fat, wet drops tapped against the frozen brown cheeks of dormant Earth. Easing itself awake, Earth let out a mighty yawn, scenting the air with a memory of last autumn’s leaves.”
Version two: “Lulu shivered as icy slivers slashed her cheeks. It was time to push aside the mound of unmatched mittens and unearth the trusty umbrella that had shielded her from such attacks in the distant past.”
Each version evokes a completely different mood. Neither mentions “rain” or “early spring,” yet they are implicit. Which leads to a fun game that can help young writers learn how to write in a more “showing” way: ask them to describe a scene without using the obvious cue words. Ask them to write about a character who is angry without saying the word “angry” or any of the obvious synonyms. Have them set a scene at night without using the words “night” or “dark.” Encourage them to put the reader inside the experience in a surprising and unexpected way, rather than relying on the obvious short-cuts. (If you happen to have the game Taboo, I use the game cards as a way to play “Show, Don’t Tell” with my writing students.)
Writing that “shows” evokes the senses, uses active verbs, draws on metaphorical language, and asks readers to engage more deeply—to put themselves in the driver’s seat, and to let the story seep up through the paper into their pores.