MAKING THE READER FEEL SOMETHING. PLEASE. SHOW AND TELL.
A Craft Essay
by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
“Show, don’t tell.”
An old piece of writing advice, generally good advice, but sometimes hard to know how to do it well. Also, confusing, because telling is often part of the showing, especially when writing personal essay and memoir.
The advice stems from how writers can best help readers understand what they are trying to convey—everything from emotions and mental state to the tone of a situation, the nature of a person or relationship, the look and feel of a setting. And much more.
What if I wrote, “I’m so mad!” Do those words and the exclamation point make you feel my anger? They just aren’t enough. I must work harder to convey my anger.
Writing how an emotion makes us feel in our body or how it looks sometimes works. But it, too, might not be enough. Writing “my face turned red” tells you what I looked like (and it is probably better than “I’m so mad!”), but showing by using such a predictable, overused description probably doesn’t help you feel my anger. And I want you to feel it, not just know about it.
There are many other techniques you can use to show and tell. Here are a few:
- Share the narrator’s thoughts and internal dialogue with herself.
- Write a scene when a scene is more effective than a summary.
- Describe a character’s (the narrator’s or someone else’s) behavior/action and/or reaction.
- Use dialogue (indirect, direct, summary, inner) as well as show what is not said, or show silence.
- Bring the senses, details, and description to the page.
- Find strong verbs.
- Give an example. Be specific.
- Choose sentence length to match the emotion/tone.
Now let me show you a few examples where writers have done show and tell well.
In Ross Gay’s essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy” (The Sun, July 2013), he discusses racism and writes about a night when he was driving home from work late at night and a cop pulled him over. Gay writes, offering the reader his thoughts, “I wasn’t perturbed by the cop. I had made a decision in the recent past no longer to be afraid of the police.” This is the scene he gives us:
And so, for the first time in my life when a cop came to my car window, I looked him in the eye and asked as gently and openheartedly as possible if he could tell me why he’d stopped me. “After you give me your license and registration,” he said. I handed them over, and he told me simply, “Your license-plate light is out.” I’d had no idea there was such a thing as a license-plate light, and I told him as much, laughing to express my good-natured confusion and gratitude: He wants to do me a favor.
And he smiled—just for a second—then asked if I had any drugs in the car. When I said no, he asked if I had any guns in the car. When I said no, he asked if I’d been drinking. When I said no, he asked again, “You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?” (Strange, you might think, for such questions to arise from a burned-out license-plate light.) And I said, looking straight ahead through the windshield, “No.”
Look at all he accomplished in this short scene. Gay “looked the cop in the eye” (behavior/action)—showing a wish to connect and also animating his decision to feel no fear. Ross describes how he asked the cop “as gently and openheartedly as possible” why he’d been pulled over. He could have written about using a sharp tone or asking matter-of-factly. But “gently” and “openheartedly” help us understand the author’s mindset. The cop doesn’t answer the question—he tells Gay he wants license and registration first (direct dialogue). The tension starts. By the time I get to the cop’s questions in a row (first two are indirect dialogue)—and the nature of the questions themselves—the tension escalates more. Having that third question written in direct dialogue—“You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?”—ups the tension even more. And then that last moment—of Gay no longer looking at the cop (action/reaction) but “looking straight ahead through the windshield” when he answers no (that is all he says, so note what is not being said/silence—and that’s a short sentence, just “no,” which is also effective at showing mindset). This makes me feel that any hope of change in that moment is gone.
In Sam Bell’s essay “The Empty Set” (The Sun, April 2020), she writes, “I dated a lunatic in college.” But what does that mean? He had outlandish ideas? He liked to speed on the highway? A label is not enough, so she follows with:
Here are some of the things he did: lit a cigarette as we deplaned on the tarmac and, after he was asked to put it out, flung the butt into the circular engine intake, causing chaos, then ran from the attendants, leaving me behind; kicked in car doors with his steel-toed boots in a very expensive neighborhood; came after me with a hammer; stole all my money. You know what? He’s not worth talking about.
She gives examples of his behaviors (with great details), and by the end of the list (even before the end), I agree and understand what she means when she calls him “a lunatic.” Let’s note the strong verbs: “flung,” “kicked,” “stole.” And then those last two sentences—“You know what? He’s not worth talking about” (not just what they say, but also the sentence length)—convey she’s tired of the mental space he has taken.
In Sophfronia Scott’s essay “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse” (Timberline Review, Fall/Winter 2019), she writes about being newly pregnant:
I loved that time of walking newly pregnant through New York City as the days were getting colder. I liked knowing I harbored my own bit of heat, a tiny ball of sunshine growing within me and waiting to warm its own universe. I lived in a realm of possibility and I remember being acutely conscious of it, of soaking up life and magic all around me—savoring the sugar of a Krispy Kreme donut melting in my mouth, my steps touching down on pavement that seemed gentle beneath my feet. I walked down Columbus Avenue and I saw a dual face, my own mingled with some aura of my unborn child, reflected to me in the smiling faces of strangers who couldn’t possibly know I was pregnant. But in that strange law of nature, life attracts life, recognizes itself and feeds there. Every face seemed like a harbinger of grace, of the potential held by the being growing inside me. I felt a strong sense of the whole experience being a gift and I was grateful. I loved being in that golden bubble. It felt like where I was supposed to be. It felt like home.
Scott begins by describing what is going through her mind (thoughts), how it felt to be newly pregnant—not the physical sensation, but her emotional and mental state. She picks out sensory details and specifics that reflect a sweetness and peace: the donut melting in her mouth, the pavement “gentle,” and every face “like a harbinger of grace.” I was with her in a glowing, happy picture.
Then that single three-word sentence. Jarring? The blood was jarring to her, and she wanted to convey that. She did in one, swift (short!) sentence—not just by the words, but because the sentence is set in its own paragraph.
Here’s a paragraph from Natalie Lima’s essay, “Snowbound” (Brevity, September 2019), about her leaving Florida to attend her “dream school” in Chicago, only to experience disillusionment at what she finds. Let’s look at how she uses strong verbs. (Basic verbs describe a general action—like “I walked down the hall” and “I sat in my chair”—versus a more specific and stronger verb such as “I shuffled down the hall” or “I slumped in my chair.”) By interspersing basic verbs with strong verbs, Lima’s prose is more effective; an entire paragraph with all strong verbs might be too much. Here I have bolded the stronger verbs.
The inside of your dorm room is muggy when you plop onto your bed. The heat suffocates your skin, so you unzip your North Face and throw it across the room. It lands on your roommate’s desk, almost knocks over her laptop. You want to get up and grab the jacket but your body can’t seem to move. You sit still, sinking into the mattress, trying to remember what it felt like to float.
In my own memoir, The Going and Goodbye, I was writing about a love I’d experienced with someone when we were both young and I did not yet understand the difficulties that could come in a committed relationship. Instead of saying that, I tried to show it with this scene in which I had asked him to go with me on a ride in an amusement park:
The ride threw us up, up, and down, down, and our bucket spun so fast we slid into each other, smashed skin to skin, and the fair and everything we could see blurred and washed together in an uneasy glimpse, again, again, and neither one of us laughed as the pace quickened, as we spun so fast everything I had ever eaten tossed in my gut, and round and round we went until the sky was in our laps and our bodies felt as if we could not press harder against the bucket’s edges, and up we tossed and down we came and up again and down and up and down and up and down until the dizziness felt like failure.
The ride slowed and stopped. The man ambled over. He lifted the metal rod and let us loose, and we staggered off the ride for which we had paid. We held our stomachs and could not bear the scent of sizzling meat, nor could we look at the fruit in market stalls, their peels broken and the flesh sweltering through. We could not have glanced at scarves swaying in the breeze nor born the sound of water beating against the shore.
We returned to our hotel room and lay on separate beds. We turned on our sides and on our backs, but nothing kept the world from free falling.
I tried to select strong verbs like “smashed” and “blurred” to create an uncomfortable feeling, and I used a long sentence in that first paragraph to show how the ride went on and on. I also tried to use the senses (e.g., “scent of sizzling meat”) to evoke nausea.
Most of this kind of work doesn’t happen for me on the first draft. My first drafts get my ideas on the page, and later drafts are often when I try out the sort of techniques I listed to see what works best for the piece.
If you look at your own writing drafts, you might see where you can revise, using one or more of these techniques. With enough practice and use of these, you won’t need this list. Your writing will show you where it needs to go to make the reader feel what you want them to.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author. Her books include the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press) and A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53). She teaches memoir and personal essay workshops. Learn more at her website.