writing wednesdays: jennifer fulwiler looks at ‘show don’t tell’

One of my favorite bloggers, Jennifer@Conversion Diary, recently emailed to share an insight she’d had regarding the “show don’t tell” rule we writers hear so much about. I’m happy to step aside this Writing Wednesday to make way for Jennifer’s revelation.

Jennifer Fulwiler, blogger/writer


Bringing stories to life with information-rich sentences:
A lesson in showing, not telling

A few weeks ago I had a crisis: I knew that the writing in my book was too simple, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

When my agent saw the first few chapters of the initial draft of my memoir, one of the observations he had was that it seemed too stripped down. I’d need to put some flesh on the bones of the story, he explained, in order for it to really sing. When I recently sat down to start the second draft, I figured it’d be easy to bring more life to it. I was wrong.

I knew that I needed to follow the age-old rules of "show, don’t tell" and "use powerful words," yet all my attempts at implementing this advice either resulted in a bunch of flowery phrases that bogged down the story or sounded awkward or pretentious. Clearly, I was missing something.

Then, last week, I was reading Mary Karr’s famous memoir, The Liar’s Club, and I came across a line that led me to a major "ah-hah!" moment and made it all clear. Before I tell you what it said, let me first tell you how I would have written it. Karr is introducing a story about her mother, and in the opening line wants to convey that her mother was headed out to visit her own mother in west Texas, but never made it. Here’s what I would have written:

Grandma was surprised when she heard that Mother wasn’t coming home.

Here’s what Karr wrote:

Out in Lubbock, Grandma was rolling a cobbler crust for Mother’s homecoming dinner when the call came that she had been detained in Leechfield.

What blew me away about comparing my writing to Karr’s was when I made a mental list of what a reader would learn from our respective sentences. Let’s take a look:

What a reader learns from my sentence:
– Grandma was surprised that Mother wasn’t coming home.

What a reader learns from Karr’s sentence:
– Grandma had been excited about Mother coming home (since she’d been planning a dinner and homemade dessert).
– Grandma was probably a native Southerner (since she was making cobbler for dessert).
– Grandma was probably a homemaker (since dinner and homemade dessert were how she chose to celebrate her daughter’s homecoming).
– Grandma was probably a good cook (since she was making the crust from scratch).
– Grandma lived in Lubbock.
– Mother stayed in Leechfield.

Wow! I was amazed at just how much Karr was able to tell us about her world in one simple sentence. It wasn’t until I saw it this way that I fully internalized the importance of showing instead of telling and using powerful words. I think I had misunderstood the concepts as aimed at simply describing individual things as well as possible; now I understand that they involve so much more, giving the writer an opportunity to pack each sentence full of information that will give life to the world she’s trying to create. Now as I go through my draft, I ask myself: "Is there any way I could enrich this sentence with more information?" It’s just a different way of stating the same age-old advice that I’ve heard a thousand times before, yet it really helped me to understand how to create vivid writing.

Awesome illustration of how to apply this principle, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing.

Have any of you had any “show don’t tell” light-bulb moments lately? If so, please, do tell — or show!

For more wisdom from Jennifer, visit Conversion Diary.