Show, Don’t Tell: the Writer’s Koan

Koan: A Paradox to be meditated upon used to train Zen Buddhist. Every writer has heard this admonition from more experienced writers or teachers: Show Don’t Tell. I love to watch writer’s faces when they hear this for the first time. The first thing that happens is they look assured that they have just been told something meaningful and important. Then there is a note of confusion and they usually say something like, “What does that mean?” Then their teacher elaborates.

My thinking about this Koan is there is something useful about it and something lacking, or perhaps several things lacking in this three word instructional aphorism. First, the phrase is stated in the negative. Not a biggie, but my education degree says teach in the positive, not the negative. Second, in most new writers, it raises more questions than it answers, which is not altogether bad.

So, being critical of this aphorism, I feel some obligation to suggest either another one, or an elegant explanation of it that is almost equally short. To get to that end, I will attempt to explain the meaning of the aphorism.

Consider me saying, “I have a big pistol.” That would likely pique your interest for a moment, you might even ask a few questions, like, “What are you doing with that?!” or “What’s the caliber?”

But if I take a big pistol from my pocket, your reaction is likely to be very different. I once saw an student learning to be an instructor take out a pistol and load it in the classroom. The reaction of his fellow students and the instructor to his show and tell was not what he expected. He intended to describe how to load a pistol and show how to do it at the same time. Almost everyone had a flight reaction. One student even dove beneath his desk. The instructor quickly took charge and ordered the student to remove the bullet from his pistol and take it out of the classroom.

The first scenario produces only a response of mild curiosity. The second one produces an immediate visceral response bordering on panic.

To my way of thinking, the response to telling borders on the description of taking about having a gun. A loaded gun brings out immediate emotional response  – showing.

The distinction couldn’t be much clearer for me. But, there’s another problem. My example is about a fear response. Not all situations in writing are about fear. And in some situations, my statement would not produce fear, for example if some men were hunting together and one wanted to show off his new pistol, no one would be fearful when he produced it.

More on this topic later.