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April 2017

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Show, don't tell: an example

When I came across this passage in A.S. King's Ask the Passengers, I marked it as a perfect example of the old saying Show, don't tell.

"My mother wears expensive high heels all day while she works, even though she works at home. She wears full business attire, too, and makeup and earrings and has her hair perfectly styled, even though nobody ever sees her."

Just by showing us this, the narrator reveals much about her mother. She doesn't tell us, "My mother is formal. My mother cares about appearances. My mother likes to feel that she has things under control." She describes her observations without interpretation. She shows us her mother, and lets us begin to draw our own conclusions.

Like any other writing advice, Show, don't tell is not an absolute to be followed at all times. But it's oft-repeated, and with good reason. And I think this passage is an example of how it can be done well, and why it usually works.


Great example. I think this is the hardest writing lesson to learn--what IS tell? So many have no idea, but once you see it, you can't NOT see it.
That's why I liked this example. (I learn best by example, myself.)
That book is amazingly beautiful.
Isn't it, though? :-)
But sometimes it's hard to tell if your are telling. Perhaps if we look at what we are saying to see if it shows more than the words say? A.S. King, by telling us what her mother is wearing, shows us the kind of person her mother is.
I think of it as the difference between observation and interpretation. Showing is when we see what's going on; telling is when someone tells us what it means or what to think of it.