“Show, don’t tell” is the golden rule of writing. Good writers know that writing, for example, “My little brother is talented,” is not an effective approach. Instead they should show the boy displaying his talent. “My seven-year-old brother gets asked all the time by teenagers to perform skateboarding tricks. He’s the only kid in his first grade who has permission to roam the library and check out anything he wants because his Lexile score is so high. And you should see the Lego space ships he makes without directions.” The reader thinks, wow, that kid is talented.
Another less obvious way writers tell instead of showing is by filtering experiences through a character’s or a narrator’s senses rather than letting the reader see, hear, touch and think for herself. Take, this sentence, for example: “Mei-mei wondered if she should cross the busy street.” The writer of this sentence has told the reader that the street is busy. But the writer has also presented this information not as a verifiable fact, but as Mei-mei’s opinion. Here’s what the writer could have written to eliminate both problems:
“Mei-Mei halted at the intersection. Two lanes of bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks breezed by in each direction. A woman with a baby carriage out in the median searched from left to right over and over. A dump truck bellowed and then braked with a skid when a yellow cab cut ahead of it.” What does the reader think at this point? I suspect she thinks tht Mei-mei is deciding whether to cross a busy intersection. But the reader wasn’t told this; she came to this conclusion based on facts which the writer presented.
In the two examples above, the reader can decide for herself what is happening. She doesn’t need a character or a narrator to tell her what is happening. The reader is there, using her own senses to evaluate the information the writer gives in order to draw conclusions.
Certain verbs lead the writer into filtering situations. If writers know the most commonly used words to initiate a filtering situation, they can attach little red flags to those words (in their minds) to alert them to a likely filtering situation. What are those words?
• to decide
• to feel or to feel like
• to hear
• to know
• to look
• to realize
• to see
• to seem
• to sound (or to sound like)
• to think (or synonyms)
• to touch
• to watch
• to wonder
If you want to be a better writer, pay attention to filtered situations in your writing. Remove the filters to force your readers to interpret situations for themselves. This reader involvement will make the reader part of the story and will increase his or her pleasure.
For more information, read Janet Burroway’s On Writing.