Writer’s Myths: Show don’t tell.


I have written many novels worth of stories. And many more non-fiction.

The worst single myth I have read, or heard, about writing is “Show don’t tell.” And while many may argue, correctly, academic writing is just as great of a fiction, “Show don’t tell” has led many writers astray.

[Read this example:]

Just before daybreak. Honolulu, Hawaii. December 7th, 1941.

I awoke and looked at my beautiful wife.

The buzzing sounded like a million angry bees, or mosquitos in the distance.

I watched her breasts rise and fall. I leaned over and smelled her hair.

I looked over at the window. While I enjoyed the moment with my wife, I was annoyed at losing sleep. My four-day pass would be over soon, and I wanted to spend all of my awake time awake with my wife.

The droning was louder. I stood and looked at the window. I knew I could not see her, but I knew my ship was out in the bay. A brute of a ship, the USS Arizona would be my home for the next six-months as we deployed for a tour of South East Asia.

My wife rolled over towards my empty side of the bed. I looked back over at her and smiled. I would miss her more than anything.

[You were told the setting – told with description.]

“Just before daybreak. etc.” One sentence easily told you what would unfold over the next couple of pages in the story.

Then you were shown the scene unfold.

NEITHER method is BETTER than the other. EACH method is a tool a writer should be able to use.

Just as I should not use ‘that’ when I write, and if I use ‘that’ when I write, I should use it sparingly – I should use EACH writer’s tool for its purpose. Whether I use a bracket, “[“, or a dash, “-“, I should use these tools, because they make my story come alive.

Not, because I want to BORE my reader.

I hope this helps you overcome your fear of ‘telling’ your story when you need to. Don’t abuse description. But, remember “Show don’t tell” is dangerous if you never tell what needs to be told.

I thought I saw a flash of light. Lightening? It seemed to be the same direction as all the incessant buzzing.

Another flash of light.

And then I heard the first ‘boom.’ How can I ever forget that first moment of dread. I am still ashamed of my first thought, “Those stupid Army boys are at it again. I wonder what they ‘accidentally’ dropped their bombs on this time?

Then I saw flashes all over the island. The buzzing seemed to come from everywhere at the same time.

My dread went from thinking of a horrible accident to a reality I wish I had never experienced. The flashes were followed by their man-made thunder. One direction was Hickam Field. Other directions I did not even know what was there.

Then the harbor lit up. I could see my ship. Like a light-bulb from a newsman’s camera, the flash was just a moment in time. But, I will never erase that image.

“IRENE!” I screamed. They are attacking us.

She sat up. “What?” Her blonde hair fell loosely around her beautiful green eyes. Another image frozen in time by the flash of another bomb.

I grabbed my uniform and headed for the door. I should have stayed. Instead, I lived the next four years with that last image of the most beautiful woman I had the privilege of loving for just one short night.

19 February 1945. Iwo Jima.

The sun was rising towards the east. This time, the sunrise did not bring the dread that it had brought every morning starting December the 8th. This time, my rage was so intense, all I could think was, “This time, it is your turn. You sorry Japs. You will pay for Irene. You will pay.

My Hellcat roared as I fired my rockets down at the quickly approaching beach. I thumbed the trigger for my .50 caliber machine guns as I strafed the beach. I released my bombs as I banked to the right and back towards the ‘Big-E.’

I felt good. My anger burned. The last image of my wife no longer felt like a burden.

And while, I cannot say I am proud of my lasting anger. I can say, “I will make them pay.”


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