Showeth Don’t Telleth: The Family Picnic Example



In critique groups, someone says it. The listener nods. But when that nodder was me, I didn’t get it.

I’ve read tons of examples of showing versus telling, but I think the easiest to grasp involves live storytelling.

Think family picnic.

Who’s the best storyteller? The uncle who gets everyone laughing because he mimics your mom? Or Grandma who ticks off a laundry list of things until everyone’s eyes glaze over?

At a picnic, someone asked the woman beside me, “How is your retirement going?”

She replied, “Well, I get up early for breakfast. Then I do household chores. Sometimes vacuuming or dusting. Once a week, I wash the kitchen floor. Usually Thursdays. Around lunch, I check email. Then I have my doctor’s appointments. But those are on Wednesdays…”

After two minutes, I sent a furtive glance to the person on my other side. My eyes pleaded, please engage me in a side conversation.

Nope. He just nodded and said the appropriate, “Really?” or “Umhm.”

Her telling totally disengaged me. I thought I would never escape this duller-than-dishwater conversation.

Inspiration struck and I excused myself to use the bathroom.

When I came back, my dad shared a funny story about our household. Or rather re-enacted the way Mom knocks and flings open my bedroom door before I can say, “Come in,” or “Just a second.”

Everyone cracked up and teased her.

Why? Because he showed them.

He didn’t talk at them, but gave a peek into our world. Made them a part of the unfolding drama.

That is what showing does and telling doesn’t.

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35 Responses to Showeth Don’t Telleth: The Family Picnic Example

  1. I like your example. Very easy to remember.

  2. Great example! And the challenge, of course, is translating all of those gestures to the printed page. Sometimes instead of saying “show don’t tell” to my creative writing students, I just tell them to use concrete nouns and action verbs. At the very least, this gives my students a way to check their work: “Hmm… ‘Erin was sad.’ Okay, ‘Erin’ is fairly concrete, but ‘was’ just kind of sits there. And ‘sad.’ What does ‘sad’ look like? So let’s try ‘Erin cried.’ Or maybe, ‘Erin’s throat tightened as she tried to stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks.’ Okay, now! That paints a picture I can see!”

    • Thanks! So true. That’s great advice–thanks for stopping by and sharing it here. 🙂 When I’m editing my manuscript, I try to remember that ” I was,” “I heard,” or “I felt” are “telling” verbs. And they can all take away from the reader’s experience.

  3. crubin says:

    I jumped up, somersaulted, then ran down the hall cheering your name. Hmmm, that does seem better than: “I was pleased with your post.”

    Thanks, Kourtney!

    • Thanks Carrie! I had so much trouble identifying showing versus telling, but once I did, wow what a difference it made. 🙂 For some reason it was at that picnic that it all came together in my head.

  4. action “picture” is worth a thousand words.

  5. This is really hard to teach–and learn. Your example shows it!

    Funny story about a college English professor trying to teach just this subject to his students (me among them). Somehow after listening to him talk about action and action verbs, I got it into my head that I should never, ever, under any circumstances, use any form of the verb “to be.” There followed months of labored, stilted, ridiculous writing–trying to show rather than tell by the overuse of action verbs. Fortunately, after 40 years, I stopped that nonsense and found my voice. Demonstrating that it’s hard to find a formula that will result in good writing.

    • I agree. It took so long for it to click in my head.

      That is a funny story. And I’m glad it had a happy ending!

      The problem with rules is that most of them are not universal. And there is a way to implement them that allows for this. Which is why good procedures are so important. 🙂

      It’s not that passive verbs can never be used, but that they should be used sparingly. Every passive verb construct should be questioned, but not necessarily turned into an active verb construct. Same as adverbs. I have some in my manuscript. But I questioned if each one needed to be there and what it was doing for my writing.

      It reminds me of when I learned Chinese. I’d ask my teacher when do I use x vs y phrase and he’d say “You get a feel for it.” It took a couple years but I did.

  6. Samir says:

    LOL Brilliant!

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    I recently did a search in a manuscript for was/were/been/etc., looking specifically for uses that were tells rather than shows (and passive voice). Some stayed—as you said, they’re not always bad. Sometimes “to be” is the best verb for the point. But most of them got replaced with better action verbs. Thank heaven for word processing programs.

    “Show don’t tell” has to be one of the hardest writing concepts to grasp. Thanks for providing such a good example!

    • Seriously. Control+F is a godsend. Helped me discover that lots of things pulsated and engulfed in one of my drafts. 🙂

      I literally had this concept thrown at me for an entire year. And I thought I grasped it, but I didn’t. Oh boy I didn’t. It took reading lots of editing books to see it.

      This example cemented it in my head as to what telling will do to the reader (bore them) and so when I get bored in my writing, I recognize it’s a tell-tale sign of too much telling. 🙂

  8. Nothing beats a good ‘ol reenactment, Kourtney. Great example!

  9. juliemyr says:

    Hi Everyone, My biggest problem in working on my novel is that I usually have a pretty good idea of how to show rather than tell (some great examples in the comments here, btw, esp’ly the one about being sad), but my problem is that with my project as big as it is (for me, anyway) I get lazy and impatient. It’s so much faster to have the character say, “I was disappointed.” It’s a lot more work to show him being so. Also, it tends to entail dialogue and all that other good stuff that constitutes WORK. Great comments and great topic.

    • Hi Julie, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Telling is a great way to get it down in the first draft. I think of it as a placeholder so I can keep moving forward. You raise a very important point about telling–it’s easier than showing. It’s definitely more work to show. But I think that we have to remember that our #1 job as writers is to engage and entertain the reader. And a book filled with telling will do the opposite. (Mind you there are some places where telling is better than showing–but that’s another blog post. 🙂 )

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for a very insightful comment. 🙂

  10. klynwurth says:

    Great illustration, Kourtney…my grandfather was “that guy.” To tell a story, he’d slap his knees, gesture, make faces, sing and, if apropos, slide a riff on his harmonica. You can imagine that his table was crowded at the family reunions. He’s been gone for 35 years and I can still see his “show.”

    • Thanks. 🙂 Aw, he sounds awesome and it must have been a gift to listen to such a wonderful storyteller. I think as writers, we sometimes forget that the original stories were spoken. And engaging a listener involves a lot of the same skills as engaging a reader.

      I’m so glad you can still see his “show.” 🙂

  11. It's the little things that make life great.berry says:

    Good analogy. Amusing too.

  12. winsomebella says:

    If I could think of a good way to show you how much I liked this I would do that instead of just telling you so 🙂

  13. 4amWriter says:

    Great comparison. I love those picnic gatherings where you just know who is going to be the highlight of the hour. One of my brothers is like that, although he can get a little pompous under the attention. But he has such a quick, sharp wit that you don’t want to miss out on any of his clever, unique spins on an anecdote.

    • Thanks! The great storytellers make family gatherings so fun. But the bad storytellers make me want to keep my cell in my hand and fake a phone call to escape. I think if you are good at something, you can be a little pompous every now and again. 🙂

  14. Cat Forsley says:

    i just Gotta say This – was reading Your website ———–
    I SAW the red HAIR :))))))))) “RESIDUAL BLONDE MOMENT ”
    xo HOW CUTE are You xo SO CUTE 🙂
    REALLY ENTRANCED with all Your stuff ————- POETRY AND MOVIE reviews —– my faves ———–
    i am so glad to have met – well – virtually met such a brilliant woman – whom has NO FEAR of showing the BRAINS – BEAUTY – TALENT – SOUL – ALL THAT PLUS 🙂
    Your friend in wordpress Land …..
    Catherine 🙂 Like You ———- xo

    • Hi Catherine! Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by my website. Aw *blushing* thank you very very much. 🙂 Blonde for decades but wanted red for years. 🙂 I’m loving it.

      I’m delighted to have met you too in WordPress land. 🙂 it’s very cool to read your poems and listen to your music. You are so talented and gorgeous inside and out. 🙂

      Kourtney Catherine

      • Cat Forsley says:

        GooooooDMORNING :)))))))))))) >>><< YES – Checked it all Out you talented LADY 🙂
        Me – Blonde – and kinda sticking to It ——— With Red i think i would look way Too GOTH :)I was goth in my teens – It was cool for me then LOL …….. ON you though — SPARKY FIRE——- BETTER WORD = SPITFIRE – FIRECRACKER …….:)
        THANK YOU FOR THE COMPLIMENTS- AND you know what – since making this MY SITE – as Their are many cat forsley squatter sites ….LOL ….Their karma – Not mine …… I have met such awesome Like Minded – passion Driven – Heart open – people —— ie- YOU 🙂
        and I am super Grateful For that …… You have my email – on the Gravatar thing – If ever in Toronto ——–Pls do Connect ……:)
        Much Much love
        Catherine – Cat 🙂 xx

        • Good Morning Miss Catherine!
          Blonde is stunning on you. 🙂 LOL. I had my goth phase in college, er and grad school too.
          It’s really cool who you meet when you exist on the web.
          Aw thanks. I’m so happy we met too.
          If I venture up there, I’ll definitely be in touch. If you ever come down to Connecticut, let me know. Though there isn’t nearly as much to do here as in Toronto. 🙂


  15. My son’s reading How to Win Friends and Influence People (for the first time) and in that the guy basically lays it out that people are not interested in other people, they’re interested in themselves and if you want people to like you or want to talk to you at a picnic, you have to LISTEN! OR – tell a really good story. Everyone likes a play!

    • Sorry for the delay in my reply, somehow you got marked as spam comments. 🙁

      That is a fantastic book, I read it in high school. LOL. Listen or entertain. Those are commandments to live by!

  16. It's the little things that make life great.berry says:

    Love the analogy. Funny and entertainment. Love ur blog. More stories on grandma h soon?

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