The Writer’s Koan: Show don’t Tell

Show don’t Tell is a writer’s koan. A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightment. A writer’s koan works in the same way.

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy? Then why do writers, myself included, continue to ‘tell’ readers instead of ‘showing’ them? Answer? First of all, this writer’s koan is frustrating. After I heard it a dozen times, I wanted to throw things. I just didn’t get it. It is not intuitively understandable. And people who say this never TELL you what it means except through vague examples. So, how do you fix writing that tells by changing it so that it shows? Show means to evoke the reader’s senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and orientation. Which is then interpreted in their imagination (my definition).
Telling closes off the reader’s imagination; it goes no further than what appears on the page.
One of the first ways is to look at your verbs and decide if they are colorless. What are some colorless verbs? Look for: was, put, placed, sit, stand, walk, look, have, seem, feel, see, is, went turned, and began, and verbs in the passive voice.
Also, check your verbs for internal, unseen, dialog words, like: think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, imagines, desire, and a hundred other similar colorless verbs.
“I was mad,” is an example of a colorless verb. The verb ‘was,’ your first clue to the lack of color. Second, what have we given the reader to visualize? Nothing. People do different things when they are mad; this character ‘does’ nothing as far was we know.
Let’s change that to:
“I flailed my arms in sweeping gestures and jerked my head toward Sally. Then I put my nose an inch from hers.”
With these sentences, you don’t have to tell the reader I am mad. The reader intuitively knows the these are clues of anger. I’ve shown the reader enough that he or she interprets my story’s intent correctly.
“Jones was excited and nervous at the same time. He looked at Bill and said…” Again, there is no color in these sentences. The reader may get half the way to visualizing what Jones looked like, but he or she is having to do the heavy lifting. They have to guess. I haven’t given them anything they can visualize.
So let’s change the sentences about Jones and Bill to:
“Jones’ voice increased in volume and he fanned himself. He paced the room, then grabbed Bill by his arms and held him as he said,…”
The reader has something to see. I’ve given enough visual clues that he or she can use to conjure what is happening. I’ve sparked their imagination.
Colorless verbs lull the reader to sleep. Their imagination becomes so torpid, they don’t want to continue reading. By changing your verbs to ones with color, you make your writing come alive. The reader’s response to your writing is spirited. Colorful writing is the stuff people are talking about when they say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” Colorless writing is good for putting folks to sleep.
As writers, our goal is to engage our readers, so their imaginations become animated. We want them to feel strong emotions about or with our characters.
Here’s how I check my writing: I use my ‘Find’ toggle in Word and enter the word I’m looking for. When I find an occurrence, I read the sentence. And then consider alternatives sentences and words. Finally, I decide if I want to change the word or sentence. I don’t try to cut all colorless words, but go for a balance of words. I’m looking to stimulate the reader’s imagination. But I don’t want to overwhelm him or her with verbal chaos—visual cacophony.
I was listening to a famous author talk about writing recently. She said she knows she has something good when she responds to it emotionally. If she writes a scene and her hands sweat, it’s good, for example. Or, if she is writing a love scene and her heart beats faster. She has the response she wants to evoke in her readers.
Good luck.