Chekhov said – supposedly – “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

It may seem odd to some new writers, I suppose, to be told over and over again to “show, not tell.” Writing is a verbal art, after all, unlike painting or music. But the show/tell conflict isn’t about the nature of the bits of data we’re organizing but about what we’re arranging them to convey. For writers of fiction, particularly, the goal, at least since the dawn of Modernism, has been to put the reader in the story, to not only know what happens but whenever possible to know what is was like to be there when it happened. What did it smell like, how did it feel, what sounds assaulted the ear? It seems to many of us that the reader is thus more powerfully engaged in the story (the operant word being “in”).  

[your mileage may vary – please feel free to disagree /elaborate/quibble in comments below]

[more to come]


Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. The best stories draw in readers, and have them participate to some degree as the story unfolds. It’s sort of like unwrapping a gift together. The writer’s job is to equip the reader and take them on the story’s journey.


  2. Additionally, there’s the notion of trusting the reader to figure things out from details provided. Does the narrator specify explicit details about the setting (“On the 23rd of March, 1957, Basil Brummagem strode into Central Park in New Your City, USA, and was never heard from again”), or about the characters? This can be a sticky one, since many readers (I’m told) don’t actually want to figure things out. They want to be told who, what, where, when, and why. My feeling is that these folks are probably much better off reading a newspaper than a novel, but they persist anyway, and there are writers in many genres who are making an adequate living by providing those details without challenging a reader’s powers of observation and inductive reasoning.
    [more yet to come]


  3. I will have to agree I almost always enjoy a story more when I feel like I’m in it. That might be an egotistical response, but I hardly feel like I’m the only one.



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About Dean Quarrell

Mr. Quarrell was born in 1946, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has so far survived various public schools, community college, university (his baccalaureate degree is in English but written in Latin), the US Air Force, and various employment, including 30 years in the software industry. He lives and writes in New Hampshire.


Writing, (noun & verb)