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Show, Don’t Tell

January 19, 2012

There is statement that has become a cliche in about every writing class, seminar, workshop, etc. “Show, don’t tell.” It is perhaps the most significant advice a writer can receive, and I don’t think a writer can be reminded of this enough.

If you’re writing a poem about love…

Show, don’t tell.

If you’re writing a novel and want your main character to have a certain character flaw, say maybe obsessiveness…

Show, don’t tell.

If you’re writing a song about a man dealing with brokenness…

Show it, do not tell it.

It’s a simple statement, but it is extremely difficult to actually apply to your work. That is why we read Shakespeare, Frost, and listen to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. They mastered this craft and learned the art of great storytelling.

People respond and react to stories that give them the room to respond and react to. If you are telling a story and not showing a story, the audience is left little room to connect with it, and any  connection that is experienced is only surface-level.

Therefore, when you think of your life as a story, why would this not apply?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t say things, that would be severely misinterpreting the statement, but even when you do say things, you should be showing. If you want to help attract other people to live great stories and live a great story yourself, you must show and not tell.

I had the  fortunate to grow up under one of the best dad’s anyone could ever ask for. The guy radiates greatness and anyone who has been around him long enough to get insight into his character immediately recognizes this. He is a freaking general in Army National Guard. And anyone who has been around him at all, will also realize that he is a man of few words. It’s kind of a Mount thing.

And so, growing up under his mentorship, leadership, example, etc. I was shown how to be a great man in a way that telling never could have equalled. I think I owe a lot of my understanding of this concept to him.

One of my fondest memories of him was when we were preparing for what was called the Half Pint Rodeo. I think I was around twelve years old at the time, maybe slightly younger, and this was my second year participating. The previous year, I had won what was the equivalent to the middle-weight event, the shetland pony, bare-back riding event. There was also the sheep riding and the cow riding. Looking at it now, the cows probably didn’t do a whole lot of bucking, but at the time, they jumped ten feet in the air with every stride. I was terrified of getting on one of them, but my dad knew that I was capable. He tried to talk me into it, but I wouldn’t budge.

“They HUGE,” I said something along the lines of. “I like the size of the shetland ponies better.”

My dad knew that words just wouldn’t do it, so he jumped on the back of the cow, grabbed the rope, and had his friend open the gate. He rode that thing like it was child’s play.

Unfortunately, I still didn’t budge, so it was all for nothing resulted aside from a good laugh from all of us bystanders. I still regret not even giving it a try, especially now that I realize the implications of his actions. But it was just one small example of millions other like it.

And it was because of such actions, that I was able to see what he was serious about. It’s one thing to tell your kid that you’re proud of them for the numerous hours spent in the driveway playing basketball, it is another thing to try and learn the sport yourself when it was something you had very little knowledge of beforehand, so that you can show your support and your pride.

And I am ever thankful for that. Because I think I responded to such actions in a way that, at the time I couldn’t explicitly recognize.

Every little boy wants to be just like his dad. My dad may not have articulated what his values in life were as much as other dads, or what he might have wanted mine to be, but he was an expert of showing me those values.

And in not being explicitly told many things in life, I was forced to observe and to think and analyze his actions. The moralities taught by my dad did not go in one ear and out the other, instead they started with my eyes and became deeply rooted in my brain. They became something more than language could articulate, which motivated me to live not by words, but by action.

I think that’s what well-told stories do and why I have found a love for reading. There is no music to queue you when to feel empathy and sadness for the characters. There are no special effects that allow you to sit back and have the intentions of its makers thrust upon you like a giant queue card. The readers are trusted to make that connection themselves. You put yourself into the story and that story, in a sense, becomes a part of you and vice versa. You invest yourself into it.

It’s personal and it’s intimate.

As a result, the influence is stronger and, once again, more deeply rooted.

There is a youtube video that has gone viral the past week or so. It is a man reciting a spoken-word poem. It’s title is Jesus > Religion. I think that this is what he is trying to get across and why it’s topped over twelve million views. Because he is calling people to show and not tell.

There seems to be a subtle movement creeping out of the American Christian church, because people are sick of others talking about being “a good Christian” and talking about loving others as they love themselves.

They long to for it to be shown.

Talk alone is not genuine, just look at politicians. Actions are genuine, and that is where a large portion of the church has begun to fail. Because no one on the outside of any way of life where talk trumps action wants to join in.

Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see.” The key is “be.” The more individual stories we have like my dad, where showing takes priority over talking, the more we are inspired to do the same.

And so, my message to you, whoever you may be, is predictably,

Show.

Don’t just tell.

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