Show. Don’t Tell. In Writing And In Life.

Show. Don’t Tell. In Writing And In Life.

Mark Twain expressed the adage well in his quote. But I need to practice show, don’t tell in life even more than in my writing.


In Writing…


Show, don’t tell is a mantra repeated over and over at writers conferences.
But there are times when showing is appropriate, and other times when telling is the way to write a passage.


When do I show?


To evoke an emotion in the reader. Showing can be in narrative, description, or dialogue. For example:


The airman’s heart pounded to the beat of the helicopter rotors, marking the seconds as the rescue basket winched downward. Five survivors writhed in the ocean below. Froth swallowed the man on the far left and a gush of red discolored the crystal blue. Sharks – 1. Coast Guard – 0.


When do I tell?


To transition or move the story forward quickly without evoking emotion. For example:


Twenty minutes later, she pulled into the grocery store parking lot.


In Life…


When do I show?


As much as I can. And hopefully, it will be an example people want to emulate, rather than others thinking, “I hope I’m never like her!”


I recall a time when I expressed my opinion, and my friend said, “You’d make a good preacher.”


It was NOT a compliment. Ouch. But it was her gentle way of telling me I’d gotten on my soapbox – and I definitely wasn’t “showing” an example others would want to follow.


But it was an important reminder that people notice, and are impacted by, my actions and words.


When do I tell?


As little as possible. Unless I want to convey factual information. For example, “To get to my house, drive down such and such a road…” blah, blah, blah.


And absolutely, positively, do NOT give advice unless the person has requested my perspective!


I’m a Christian, and I hate, hate, hate to be preached to.* From what I’ve seen, nobody else likes it either.


*NOTE: A sermon or class in a church setting that is not delivered in “preachy”, condemning way is a spirit-nurturing, regenerating, helpful message. Always.

What helps me discern between showing and telling?

Every reader runs across lines in books that are golden to them. And a passage from pages 86-87 in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous Second Edition hits home with me:


“Those of us who live this program don’t simply carry the message; we are the message.


If I want to be a message, it’s essential I ask myself:


“What message do I want to send?”


“What message am I really sending?”


And based on the answers, I must modify my actions and words accordingly to show the most helpful characteristics I can.

What helps you show versus tell in writing or in life?

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Joni Vance is an award-winning author of fiction, essay, and poetry. She loves mystery, history, and how God reveals Himself every day.

May God reveal the mystery of His love in your life story.  

6 thoughts on “Show. Don’t Tell. In Writing And In Life.

  1. Great post Joni! I’m not good at it, and I’m not consistent, but trying to remember to show God’s love rather than tell about it. Being His hands and feet rather than describing His hands and feet. I know you were using “preaching” in a negative sense, but I also believe there are times I need preaching in my life. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing. Yes, I need to be reminded of what I need to do – sometimes I get the message by watching others – and sometimes their words are what speak to me. Preaching is often used in a negative sense, but I need good old-fashioned teaching of values and God’s word to keep me on track. 🙂 Something you can say “Amen” to…..

  2. Thank you for the lesson on showing versus telling. You have reminded me to make sure I’m showing an example of Christ by what I do in public and at home, but keep that to myself and not preach about it:)

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, trying to live an example for others is my goal. I don’t always succeed for sure, but I keep asking God for help and doing my best. And I try not to tell (aka nag) others. 😉

  3. So many life-lessons in your post, Joni. I am a Bible study author and a discipleship teacher. I slip into teaching mode at the drop of a hat. No one enjoys when a conversation becomes a lesson. They probably think I’m showing off.

    Thankfully, I’m not embarrassed by my stumbles and failures. Even when I’m teaching, I readily share when a passage is hard for me to live out, but I try to show how God’s grace lifted me up in my circumstances. When I share my mistakes, it puts others at ease and they become the teachers by opening up about the lessons God has taught them.

    The class is always a blessing when the students talk more than the teacher!

    • Thanks for sharing. And the gift of teaching is essential. It’s difficult not to tell – especially when teaching. I appreciate your comments – and thankful that God takes our words and uses them in the way He knows will help others. I have learned that I do my best and then God takes it and makes it useful.

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