Show and Tell: Is Compelling Writing a Matter of Style?

Writing workshops say, “Show, don’t Tell.” But John Grisham “tells” a great deal of The Broker and the delivery comes across as bright, brisk and punchy.


But in six years there had been too much sleep. Now his body was well rested. His mind was working overtime.

He slowly got up from the bed where he’d been lying for an hour, unable to close his eyes, and walked to the small table where he picked up the cell phone…

– John Grisham, The Broker

“Tell” can be very powerful. But I’m no John Grisham (wish!) and I’m considering whether to change the following version, which is heavy on tell…

The cardinal’s trill outside her window overwhelmed Dayton’s concentration; between that and the sun’s glare on my screen… Rising, she turned. In a few strides she reached the windows and rested her forehead against the glass. Calm. After a short rest, she pushed back from the window and shut the blinds with an abrupt clatter, careful not to catch the silk cuff of her blouse. The noise didn’t travel far; the third floor of the Naval Research Lab’s flagship building was as big and open as a high school gymnasium. Sound tangled and died in the warren of haze-gray cubes that defined hundreds of anonymous workspaces. Gliding tall on athletic legs back to hers, Dayton smoothed her skirt in place, lighted on the edge of her seat, and focused again on the screen.

Absorbed in her work, Dayton translated another variable, her fingers snapping again through the codex she’d pried from Peregrine’s hands (just this morning?).  Elated, she plugged the values into variables, closer with each calculation to certifying the  report and completing the Petrel project’s three-year odyssey. At least, that was the plan. Who’d believe the values call our remote-controlled weather glider a data-siphoning bomber – a goofy novelty from a bad Bond flick?

Absently twisting her hair into a knot, Dayton groped for a pen beneath a stack of farewell cards and secured the messy bun. On a dollar-store calculator, she double-checked her team’s world-renowned engineers.

– Kim Shupenia, Proof of Concept

…to something showier.

Dayton didn’t hear the cardinal trill outside her office window. She was losing a game of keep-away that might end her friends’ fledging careers.

They took it!

Abandoning her calculations, Dayton imagined kicking off her shoes. Grabbing a pen from beneath a stack of farewell cards, she managed not to climb up onto her desk. Instead, she rolled her hair and stabbed a messy bun, thinking how easy it’d be to take a few quick steps and clear at least two of the fuzzy-walled gray office cubes.  She’d  intercept the manual that arced through the air just shy of the vaulted ceiling. Watching it fly, years of self-discipline warred with her earliest instincts. Grow up.

Nao gleefully leapt and snagged it, landing flat-backed on the photocopier; light as a butterfly, in flagrant violation of the warranty. Dayton cringed; interns, she seethed. She pivoted just as Nao, banding the pages in a tidy scroll,  winged it back across the vacant room to Shing, the missile almost invisible against Naval standard, haze-gray walls.

Laugh, Dayton counseled herself, they think it’s a game. With a smile, she protested, “did you want a job here at the Naval Research Lab or on a football field?” her tone stopped Nao and Shing just shy of pandemonium. Nao shot Shing a look; now she’ll guard it like a hawk! Shing grimaced back, we were supposed to lay eyes on the codex, not steal it.

Gesturing to Shing, Dayton dropped lightly to the floor. Handing her the document, he grinned, “It’s after 5 on Friday, Dayton. We’re the last ones in the office. Paperwork doesn’t matter – Congress rubber-stamps the Petrel project first thing Monday.” Nao’s voice echoed in the gymnasium-sized office as she approached, her tiny stride eating the distance much more slowly.  “Shing’s right; relax. Production will catch any anomalies.” Dayton shook her head. “A last-minute sanity check shouldn’t turn up weapons-grade heat sinks. And titanium-reinforced struts? Access panels hinged out like bay doors?”

Nao laid a hand lightly on her supervisor’s shoulder. “What are you saying, Dayton? We’ve worked three years to develop a goofy novelty from a bad Bond flick?”

 – Kim Shupenia, Proof of Concept



1 thought on “Show and Tell: Is Compelling Writing a Matter of Style?

  1. David Hood

    You know, my writer’s club gets itself into this pickle every time it holds a manuscript meeting. The critics come in, jumping on every little bit of telling that’s in a piece. And OK, telling isn’t nearly as engaging as showing, but – particularly in a longer piece like a novel – you need to pass so much backstory, especially at the beginning, that showing every little thing is going to turn your novella into War and Peace (not that there’s anything wrong with War and Peace, but if it had a plot that could otherwise fit into 50 pages, writing it out to a thousand would drag it out to sound like Proust.)
    My contention is that if you read any commercial fiction these days, you’ll see a) an opening with some big hooks in it, then b) at some point, in chapters 2 or 3, a big pause where the writer is saying, ‘Ok, I’ve got you hooked, now let me tell you a bunch of stuff that gets us ready to speed through the rest of the story, then I won’t have to bother slowing down to show you it later on’. If you’re already hooked, of course, you buy into the telling. You’re almost grateful to be given the information, as it answers some of the questions you had about Chapter One.
    Check out ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ to see the most outrageous example. Stieg Larsson just about gives you the annual report of the corrupt family company at the heart of the novel.


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