Straight from the professor: Show me don’t tell me.

By David Bain

Most of the college English classes I teach are introductory; in other words, I teach writing to non-writers, students who are looking to learn how to do an MLA works cited entry so they can get by in their other classes. In other words, I teach students who are generally only in the class because they have to be.

I try to instill a love for language and craft as well, but again, I’m not teaching people who are already in love or even remotely familiar with literature. As such, it can often be a challenge to help them understand the “show, don’t tell” rule.

But it can be done.

Take this week, for example. We read Malcolm X’s inspirational essay “Literacy Behind Bars.” In this essay, X discusses how incarceration gave him the opportunity to educate and better himself.

I let students come up with their own ideas for our initial first-person essay by free-associating in our class discussions – there’s no right or wrong idea, anything can be brought up.

One student told an amazing story, one that I hope will turn into an amazing essay.

She said she identified with X because her own great-grandparents were uneducated slaves, which resulted in her grandmother also being uneducated despite being born outside of slavery. Her mother, who went to school through the seventh grade, was the first person on that side of her family to have any formal education. But her mother didn’t stop there and is, my student claims, one of the most well-educated people she’s ever known.

My student’s mother, realizing the value of self-education, made her and her brothers and sisters stay inside after school, reading aloud to the family, being read to, doing additional math and science projects and copying ten words a day out of the dictionary. She resented this at the time because all her friends were outside, playing, but now she sees the value of what her mother put her through.

It’s a great, uplifting, empowering story, isn’t it?

But incredible as her story is, my student is worried about getting three to five full typed, double-spaced pages out of it. And I can understand her anxiety – after all, I just told the whole thing in two paragraphs, less than 150 words, and she has to come up with 750 to 1,250!

Of course she can take up some space relating her story to Malcolm X’s, but I saw in her story an excellent example of how the “show, don’t tell” rule comes into play. In fact, I used her story as an example in subsequent sections of the class this week.

You, the reader, probably filled in all sorts of details – what my student looked like as a little girl, what sort of house she lived in, maybe even details about the room in which her mother made them do this extra academic work, maybe even what my student looks like now. You might also have imagined at least the tone of the conversations my student and her mother might have had when she’d have rather been outside.

But wouldn’t her story be even more involving, more inspirational, if she provided those details?

I asked her how this would play as a scene in a movie about her life. Initially, she had told the class her story. Now, with the answers to this question, she began showing it to us. She could simply have told us  the house was big and in a nice neighborhood but she started showing it to us- nice crystal on the table and never a speck of dust, the quality of light coming in through the window, the sound of other kids playing making her jealous. She could have just told us her mother had an arch, yet caring attitude, but instead she gave the class snippets of dialogue that showed this – “You don’t know how lucky you are. Your grandma and great-grandfolks had nothin’!”  She imitated her mother shaking her finger (also showing a somewhat comical lecturing, scolding attitude). She illustrated for the class the slumped posture she would adopt, the heavy sigh she would breathe when it was time for her after-school lessons to begin. Students saw and heard what it was like instead of simply being told. They had been sympathetically engaged by the concept of her story, but now they were laughing with her, relating their own tales of the drudgery their parents put them through. Being shown the story – through dialogue, through physical details and gestures – pulled her audience in on a stronger, deeper, more intimate level.

“Everything you just told us, all those details, can translate to the page,” I told her. Instead of a two-paragraph summary, we have the possibility for a scene.

This student – and most others – are simply worried about word count and page length, and that’s the way I sell “show, don’t tell” to them at first – as a trick to help them pad their paper and reach rote requirements.

But the truth is the technique makes them more observant thinkers – and results in more interesting papers: something they soon learn for themselves.

I often read student work out loud and then, a few classes later, I will ask students what specific details they remember of a particular story. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. Often their recollections are just random images, and that’s okay because the point is to think about which details stay with us and which don’t when we read. Invariably, what students recall is the “shown” details rather than the “told” details. For example, I frequently use an essay about motorcycle helmet laws. Two class periods later, students will have forgotten every statistic they were “told,” but they’ll remember the scratched up, dented helmet they were “shown” when the author illustrates a point with a scene.

My bet is that, similarly, two weeks from now, when we recall this student’s particular story, her classmates will remember the summary they were told, because it’s strong thematically, but, just as importantly, someone will imitate the shaken finger, the heavy sigh, the things they were shown rather than simply told.

Telling your details will get your point across, but showing them will make your work – fiction, nonfiction, whatever it might be – stick more permanently in your readers’ memories.


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