The best way to tell any story is not to tell it, but to show it.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.
— Anton Chekhov
This is the golden rule of writing, to show not tell. Telling results in flat, dull images. Showing breathes life into a story, creating pictures in the reader’s mind.
That’s what I shared with my college journalism students this week, as we began to tackle the art of the feature story.
Always, when I begin this lecture each semester, I watch how the students sit up with their backs straighter, how they lean in closer to the words. They’re ready now. They are eager to move beyond the inverted pyramid and the just-the-facts-ma’am style of newswriting. They want to share words that stimulate the reader’s imagination with rich details.
I instruct them this way: Instead of telling me a boy is tall, show me how he bends over nearly in half to hug his aproned grandmother at the kitchen sink.
Instead of telling me that a room is empty, let me hear the echo when the child creaks open the door.
Instead of telling me that the woman is afraid, show me how her muscles tighten as she flattens herself against the bedroom wall.
Confession Number One: I know how to write this way, but sometimes, I get lazy. (This sentence is an example.)
Confession Number Two: I know how to live a show-not-tell life, but I don’t always do it.
“How do we show, not just tell, Jesus? I think it begins with the details of our lives.” A writer-friend, L.L. Barkat, once wrote those words on her blog.
Yesterday, I witnessed one answer to your question, in my journalism classroom.
It happened right before the day’s lecture began. I told the students about a painful situation in the lives of some people I love. I shared surface details, enough so they would know our deep hurt.
A college freshman in the front row shot her hand into the air.
“Can we pray for you? Right now?” she asked.
I nodded my head, feeling a lump rise up in my throat.
And right then, thirteen heads bowed. The young woman talked with God, weaving words and details together in a way that only the Spirit could have known.
With my head bowed and fingers laced, I thought it: They could have told me they’d pray. That would have been enough. But they showed me instead.
Thirteen people lowered their chins to their chests. All of them shone Light on some broken glass in this life.
And just now, I think I can see the glint again.