Tell, Don’t Show

As a fiction writer, one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received came from a literary agent who had read one of my manuscripts.

Show, don’t tell,” she said. This basic yet crucial writing technique can be attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and has been championed by legendary writers like Hemingway and more contemporary novelists such as Chuck Palahniuk.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekhov

That literary agent was right; my manuscript was written in the style of, “He threw the ball. She caught the ball.”

Instead, I should have written something along the lines of, “The ball acred through the sky, a blur of white against the dazzling midday sun, landing with a thud so resounding it rattled her teeth as she snatched it from the air. ‘Nice catch!’ he called, but she didn’t hear his compliment; the scent of rawhide baking in the heat and the fresh-cut grass tickling her toes evoked nostalgic memories of twilit evenings in the backyard, just she and her dad, tossing the ball back and forth until the mosquitoes drove them indoors.”

No, I did not write a baseball novel. That’s just an example I pulled out of thin air, but it perfectly illustrates the concept. Evoke the emotions of your reader by allowing them to experience your story for themselves. This fosters a deeper connection with your characters.

I shelved that particular manuscript and never looked at it again. It was an early attempt at fiction and I was still finding my footing; the problems ran much deeper than my boring play-by-play narrative. I also realized after it was finished that the main character was kind of pathetic, and even worse, a thinly veiled version of ME. Yikes! But that agent’s advice resulted in a lightbulb moment for me and, in the long run, turned me into a better writer.

“Show, don’t tell” may be my mantra for fiction, but there is one area in which I draw the line: instruction manuals.

Tara came back from Nevada with a headboard in the back of her pickup. Because she bought it from IKEA, it was actually just a box full of random items that might one day, with a little patience and a lot of luck, become a headboard (but could just as easily turn into a picnic table or a bookshelf): pressed wood and metal screws and wooden dowels, all awaiting assembly. I’m not a big fan of putting things together myself, but the price was right and the style was exactly what we’d been looking for. It was worth a little elbow grease!

When we opened the instruction manual, I groaned. It was one of those pamphlets that is all illustrations. I have a mental block when it comes to those things; my eyes immediately glaze over, and I find it impossible to tell Widget A apart from Doohickey B. I’m a writer—I like words, not pictures! User manuals are the exception to the above rule—the only booklet in which I prefer “Tell, don’t show.” Hell, I’d take a manual with assembly instructions in another language. At least then I could fire up Google Translate and find out that csavar is the Hungarian word for screw and my Vietnamese friends call a dowel a chốt.

Instead, we were left with hieroglyphics, which caused us at one point to attach two pieces together upside down. Only common sense saved us from disaster; we were pretty sure the top of the headboard should be level with the supporting posts instead of eight inches lower.

&#$(%, you, IKEA!

I know I’m not the only visually-challenged one to feel this way, because memes and cartoons exist.

Fortunately, we were able to power through despite the lack of clear directions and, sixty minutes and many choice curse words later, had a perfectly assembled (and level) headboard.

I’m thinking of becoming a man of the cloth, guys. Only minus the cloth.

One of my company’s publications is a Bridal Guide. It turns out there are few secular options for couples wishing to get married in non-religious ceremonies in the Black Hills. This isn’t quite the Bible Belt, but a tad closer than the Pacific Northwest, anyway.

This afternoon, my supervisor (jokingly?) suggested one of us become ordained because neither the Custer nor Meade County courthouses are performing weddings anymore. It didn’t take long for another coworker to throw my name out there, essentially saying, “That seems like a Mark thing.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but honestly, I was just waiting for somebody to bring up my name. Even I can’t deny that it seems like a very “me” thing.

If nothing else, I’d do it because it would make for a hell of a blog post. Look how much mileage I’ve gotten over the mere mention of my name!

Besides, how hard can it be? “Dearly beloved, blah blah blah, you may kiss the bride.”

I practically have the whole ceremony memorized already.

By the way, keep the boat names coming. We’ve gotten some really good suggestions so far and are continuing to weigh our options.

27 thoughts on “Tell, Don’t Show

  1. Haha, I find it especially baffling when the IKEA instructions feature two similar parts, and it’s up to me to not mix them up. I still struggle from telling and not showing too, and when I do show, it’s irrelevant to the story, or is described too vaguely. Loved this. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark, your mention of Anton Chekhov instantly reminded me of the play, “Three Sisters”, which was one of the first Chekhov plays I ever saw. So many theater companies do it. Great play, but very depressing.

    “but there is one area in which I draw the line: instruction manuals.” OMG, Can you imagine doing that for a living? It’s funny because I don’t mind putting things together, but I don’t ever read the instructions. I prefer just putting it together myself. I find the instructions more confusing that trying to figure it out for myself.

    Loved the ordained minister pic! LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have nearly enough confidence in my abilities to try to “wing it” when it comes to putting things together, Ron. Experience has taught me I need instructions that are as detailed as possible if I have any hope of being able to use something I’ve bought!


  3. OMG we have put together many Billy bookcases over the years and if children can do it (mine do…)… Ok. Never mind. I won’t get into an Ikea spat here.

    Question? Why is there no picture of the finished headboard? 😛

    Thanks for the story and link of Show, Don’t Tell. Bookmarked. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, if your children want to come over and assemble my IKEA parts, I’m down. I’ll even feed them for their efforts!

      The short answer to your question is, because the bed was messy! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have, lol. And when I say “the bed was messy” this is only by Tara’s strict standards. Which means it was probably neater than 90 percent of other beds, ha. But she reads my blog and would give me a hard time over posting that pic, I’m sure!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I once had a commanding officer tell me that “if you use ten words to say something you could have said in two, you are being inefficient”. He went on the be a a 4 star General and the A Joint Chief.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hemingway championEd that style? As I remember it, The Old Man and the Sea is about as basic writing as I’ve ever read. Maybe it was just that book?

    I actually prefer illustrations when putting things together. Probably because I can never remember which is a Philips head and which is a regular screwdriver.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised, too! I have long said I am NOT a fan of Hemingway; I feel his writing is very simple (short sentences, very stop-and-start to me) and think he’s overrated. Maybe I just haven’t read the right books.

      The ideal instruction manual combines illustrations AND words!


  6. If you become a minister, you have to leave in the “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder!” line at the end of the wedding ceremony. I’m an atheist, but I insisted the minister use that text for our wedding instead of the boring modern version.

    Because it’s dramatic af.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Becoming a minister sounds like an easy side hustle. I suppose you’d have to sort of get to know the couple and be able to say nice things about them intelligently.

    Nah, maybe not worth it.
    I think I’d refuse to even attempt to put something together from an instruction manual. I’ve survived this long without having to. I’m impressed you did it in 60 minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oooo why didn’t you guys CALL me???? I’ve built a total of….1…2…3…4…yes, 4 Ikea Billy bookcases! I can assemble those puppies with my eyes closed now. I’ve got a whole method worked out.

    What I failed at was trying to assemble a bed with built-in storage underneath it. Finally had to pay for them to send out some skilled professionals with power tools. They brought their own hardware with them saying that what comes in the box is crap.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oops! I guess I read your post wrong. Didn’t realize you were assembling a headboard. With storage!!! That would definitely be beyond my skill set.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Using “show, don’t tell” has always been a struggle for me, because for years the only writing I did was technical, memos, or user guides for apps I’d created. (Even though I always bet myself no one would bother to read the user manuals. As a result I always read the manual – I appreciate the effort and surprise, surprise, it almost always helps in the long run.)

    I’d have to ask though, what would be worse: pictures only, or “English” instructions written by someone who doesn’t really know the language? (Thinking of baffling instructions for made in China gear I’ve bought over the years.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question. I was once hired to translate German that had been translated into English badly into better English. That was an interesting assignment! I think I’d have to go with the pictures in this instance.

      Liked by 1 person

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