This Business of Writing

THE Cardinal Rule of Writing

In The Craft of Writing on October 27, 2009 at 9:12 am

We all know the cardinal rule in writing is “Show. Don’t tell.” It sounds simple, but what does it really signify? It can be defined in two words, “action” and “dialogue.”

To build this article I did a bit of Internet research and everything I found could have been condensed into those two words. I was also truly surprised at the lack of definitions or explanations for this most important of rules. Then, when I attempted to put this article on paper, I found how difficult it was to explain. So, I thought I ‘d give you a couple of examples as a way to “show” you what it means.

Consider this “telling.”

Jackson rode into town with the top down on his convertible, waving to his many friends as he passed. He acknowledged his neighbor, the grocer, the post master, his teacher and the police officer who had threatened a youthful Jackson with arrest when he was caught pilfering apples.

I’ll bet you can see this happening. However, in contrast, let’s “show” this same scene with action and dialogue.

Jackson backed his antique convertible from the garage, taking time to lower the top. Entering the vehicle again, he paused to savor the warmth of the sun as it kissed the back of his neck.

Pulling out of the driveway, his waved to Bill, his poker buddy who lived in the house beside his.

“Hey, Bill. How they hanging?”

Bill throttled down his mower and returned Jackson’s gesture with a single toss of his hand. “Uptight, as always. Love that car, Jack.”

“Especially on days like today.” Jackson flourished his hand in a wide arc to encompass the cerulean sky overhead. With a parting nod in Bill’s direction, Jackson pointed his cherry-apple ’57 Chevy into the emerald overhand of the tree-lined road.

As Jackson rounded the corner, Michael, the town’s only postman, tossed a greeting in his direction. “What’s up, Jack?”

Jak responded in his normal fashion. “Same ol’, same ol’.” He then added, “Great day to have your job!”

Michael nodded and smiled. “Beautiful day, it is.”

Jak continued down the road until he was forced to break at the elementary school crosswalk. Miss Jenkins, the town spinster and his long-past kindergarten teacher, waddled past in front of his car.

“Good day, young Jackson. You still minding your manners?”

“Of course, Miss Jenkins.” Jackson waved over his windshield. “You taught me well.”

She nodded as if she was proud of her accomplishments in his regard, then passed from sight.

As Jackson reached his office and parked his vehicle, he raised the black fabric top for the local news warned of a coming weather front.

Just then, a burly officer dressed all in blue called out. “Hey, Jackson! Straight and narrow, are we?”

Jackson laughed at the running joke and answered in his habitual way. “Yeah, Sam, until I’m caught!”

Officer Samson O’Rilley chuckled as he bounded up the police station steps two at a time to cram his large body behind the too-small desk in the office he shared with Jackson.

You should notice these two scenes tell the exact same tale. Yet, which of them pulls you, as a reader, into the story? Which introduces you to the characters in such a way as to make them come alive?

I think it’s obvious. In the first scene, there were only five verbs and zero dialogue. In the second there were so many I didn’t bother to count.

In the first we met six characters, none of whom showed any personality or life. The second, in contrast, introduce those same six and we learned something about each of them. That is what draws people into your work.

The lesson here? I hate to say it, but it’s “Show. Don’t tell.”

I hope this helps a bit and may all your books are best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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