Three Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of attending a writers’ retreat. One of the workshops there focused on the concept of “show, don’t tell,” one of the bedrock principles of effective writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that a writer should describe characters and actions in ways that draw readers into the moment. A writer should avoid giving the reader information in ways that feel distant or list-y. For instance…
Lucy stared up at the top of the mountain. It was the tallest mountain she’d ever seen. She was doubtful that she’d ever make it to the top. But she had to. Trevor needed her to.
A cool mountain wind stung Lucy’s eyes. The fiercest mountain in the territory hulked in front of her, just daring her to try climbing it. That hazy, snow-capped summit might as well have been the moon. But if she didn’t make the climb, Trevor was as good as dead.
See the difference? The first version is clinical, distancing, and choppy: “Lucy stared,” “It was,” “She was doubtful,” etc. There’s no connection that pulls the reader into the scene.
The second version incorporates sensations and emotions without spelling them out for the reader. We don’t need to be told that Lucy’s staring up at a mountain if we get the sensation of the wind coming down and stinging her eyes. We don’t need to be told it’s the tallest mountain she’s ever seen if we picture it “daring her to try climbing it.” Is she doubting herself? Heck yes, she is! And we know it because we can picture it as she does, so far above her that it’s practically the moon.
“Show, don’t tell” is so central to learning to write stories that entire books have been devoted to the subject. All writers, of all abilities, backgrounds, and paychecks, are still continually honing this skill.
(Except maybe Stephen King. He seems to have it down pretty well.)
The reason I’ve had the importance of “show, don’t tell” spinning around in my brain lately, however, is not purely fictional.
Because truth is stranger than fiction.
Two Sundays ago, I enjoyed a special occasion at my church: an outdoor service. The unseasonably warm late September weather was a nice bonus. I sat on the dewy ground, Saturday’s grass-clippings stuck to my sandals, while we all sang and prayed our way through an hour of worship.
The thing about our church is that it’s a beautiful, centenarian stone building smack in the middle of an urban bus route. It’s noisy all around us in the neighborhood, and parking is a weekly source of frustration. During a typical service, the taupe-painted plaster walls dampen the intrusive sounds of buses, car horns, and sirens. The traditional altar, the arched woodwork, and the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus—reigning in heavenly glory in one frame and affectionately gathering a group of children in the other—all serve to frame our minds for worship. They tell us that we are in a church.
And personally, I love that setting. I love the quietness it brings into my lungs, the reverb of the music, the thrum of the old, gleaming organ, the soft cushions and hard backs of the pews, the peaceful feeling of my own smallness.
But last Sunday was different.
There were no cushions or pews, no thrumming organ. There were no thick plaster walls to hold our music in—or to hold the noise of the world out. No roof to block the noise of the life-flight helicopter on its way to the nearest hospital. The construction work down the alley proceeded as usual; plywood scraps dropping into a dumpster punctuated the verses of our hymns. There were bugs and sunglasses and kids on blankets. When my toddler got fidgety during the sermon, I walked with him under the trees and admired the crabapples.
Most of the signs that told us we were in a church had been left inside.
The teen members of our congregation led several “campfire”-style songs, accompanied on guitar. Our custom of kneeling at a prayer rail was replaced by filing to the center of the grass and standing to receive communion. Our pastor knelt on the ground with the children for their special message at the end.
The Biblical lesson discussed with the children (and all of us) was Jesus’ story of the master who, at the end of the day, paid his laborers equally for their work whether they had worked the full day or arrived halfway through. It was a lesson that by our world’s standards seems to advance bold unfairness—why should someone who came late receive the same?
The point made in the Gospel is that it shouldn’t matter to us whether our labor is equal to that of our neighbors, but that each of us receives what we need to live. And that it should not be up to our world’s flawed concept of fairness to decide what our neighbors should receive. And that grace isn’t meant to be doled out based on what we think we or others have “earned.”
For the record, it made perfect sense to the kids.
The past year has been a turbulent one in our world, particularly within the borders of the United States. There are questions of fairness, of fundamental rights, of safety, and of painful, inescapable history that we are grappling with as a nation. There seem to be shortages everywhere:
- Shortages of patience and the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt
- Shortages of compassion towards those who are suffering
- Shortages of clean drinking water (see Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico)
- Shortages of generosity by those who have more than they could ever need
- Shortages of time and money by parents working extra shifts to give their children a better life
- Shortages of respect for refugees and immigrants, who have fled Hell on earth and still somehow find the strength to hope for the promise of America
- Shortages of welcoming for LGBTQ+ individuals within churches, the places where they should feel the fullness and wideness of God’s love more than any other
- Shortages of trust in our neighbors, our friends, and our families
One thing there seems to be no shortage of, however, is fingers capable of pointing blame. There are literally billions of glibly derisive Facebook posts (“Stay triggered, snowflakes”), angry press conferences and viral videos, and ill-advised tweets to choose from. It is so easy to blame, so easy to get angry, that we spend hours in “flame wars,” sometimes stewing days later over what we should have said. There’s no room to show kindness amid that much telling of anger.
We have allowed ourselves to become a nation of Tellers.
We try to tell others why we are right. We try to tell others why they are wrong. We try to make sure our facts are correct. We try to point out when their facts aren’t. We do all this because we believe in what we have to say. We try so hard, and we tell all day, and at the end of it our voices are worn out and no one has actually heard anything.
Since my out-of-church experience two Sundays ago, one of the hymns we sang has been stuck in my head. “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”
It’s a song of unity, about reaching out and spreading the Gospel not through words, but through actions. The refrain is simple, and it’s been stuck in my head for days. And the more I think about “show, don’t tell,” the more I see how it applies to much more than my writing.
There are a whole lot of well-meaning ways that Christians tell people who they are. Some self-identify with a smile and automatically say things like “thoughts and prayers.” Some quote Scripture and share “type AMEN if you agree!” statuses on social media. Some wear crosses and WWJD bracelets and put bumper stickers on our cars.
Now, you might read those last few items and thought, “But wait, aren’t those things showing Christianity?” I would say that they are not. They’re just… labels. They’re visible telling. They are not actively engaging with and showing love for the world in ways that the Gospel instructs.
That’s not to say that these forms of telling are not valuable—they are! But I would say that visible telling like the examples I listed should be the starting point for living one’s faith, not the destination.
Furthermore, these contemporary symbols of Christianity run a very real risk of doing the opposite of what they intend. If a Christian wearing a cross treats someone cruelly or dismissively—especially someone who is homeless, cast out, or vulnerable—they misrepresent the central kindness of Christianity. If a wealthy Christian announces that they are “praying for the people of ___” after a tragedy but takes no worldly action to help, then they are behaving not like Jesus and his disciples, but like the Pharisees who persecuted them. If a Christian types “AMEN” for sentiments like “People who don’t work for their living shouldn’t get handouts!” then they are tragically misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus.
And the trouble with using those symbols is that if a person professes to be “of Christ” but does the opposite of what Christ taught, they’re not just telling their faith instead of showing it. They’re showing the world around them exactly what Jesus rejected: hypocrisy.
Last Sunday, a cowardly act of mass murder was committed in Las Vegas, Nevada. The killer, by all previous accounts an unremarkable, older white man, managed to murder almost 60 people and wound over 500 more, thanks to the incomprehensible weaponry that he was able to purchase legally, before fatally shooting himself.
There are a whole lot of potential threads for discussion from the circumstances of this tragedy, some more charged than others, and I don’t want to pull on any of them right now. I don’t want to be just another teller in the face of endless sequel-fatigue surrounding mass shootings in America.
What I want is change.
Another lesson from the writers’ retreat: Know what your main character wants and then make sure they take decisive actions to get it. Don’t make your character wish and hope really hard for something that subsequently falls in their lap. Don’t make convenient sidekicks and plot twists do the hard work for your character. Don’t let others solve the problem.
Don’t wait for others to solve the problem.
I am learning, now more than ever, to take that lesson to heart for my writing and for myself.
And that takes me back to a common expression, now being heard in the face of natural disaster in Puerto Rico and unnatural disaster in Nevada: “thoughts and prayers.”
There are tellers who use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” and tellers who criticize the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Unfortunately, the climate for discussion on the internet means that tellers on either side may instinctively deride the tellers on the other for their disrespect and godlessness, or their sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy… and on and on and on.
But as a praying, thinking Christian, I believe that neither side is wrong. Here’s why:
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27
The lesson of that verse is that followers of Christ are called to be his body on Earth—to engage fully and compassionately with the world around them—so that Christ’s love may be visible to all even if his body is not. This is echoed in St. Teresa of Avila’s 16th-century poem (“Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours”) and in the modern idiom “be Christ’s hands and feet” to describe the work of Christian churches.
So, if a person’s “thoughts and prayers” are the starting line for acting with kindness and courage in the face of a conflict or tragedy, then that’s walking the walk. That’s showing.
But when individuals professing to be Christian throw out a phrase like “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet or a prepared statement and then fail to follow it up with action, there is no showing to go with their telling. They are waiting for someone else, Divine or worldly, to solve the problem. They don’t acknowledge that their own actions might be the intended instruments of solution.
They’re letting their mouths do the work of their hands and feet.
Worse than that, if the most powerful of those individuals act in ways that contradict their words, such as accepting vast donations from gun lobbyists while offering “thoughts and prayers” and taking no action to prevent future tragedies, then they aren’t just telling instead of showing. They’re disrespecting their own faith and allowing countless people to be harmed, even killed, in the process.
If this triptych of unusual Sundays has shown me anything, it’s that I need to act the way I would try to write a main character to act: through decisive words and actions that demonstrate kindness and courage.
I have tried to remember that feeling of church without walls and show grace to others regardless of what my worldly mind might argue they have “earned.”
I have tried—continually—not to give in to anger and despair.
I have tried to shift my telling into showing, to do hard work, to find small ways to solve small problems and support the solving of bigger ones. I have found ways to donate and volunteer. And dozens of generous, kind people have guided me through all of it.
There are nights when I fall into bed with a smile thinking of a good thing that got done that day, and there are nights when I know I need to rest and try harder tomorrow. But I think (I hope) that means that my hands and feet are moving, at least.
Whether you are a writer, a Christian, an American, or all or none of the above, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this far. And I want to encourage you, regardless of what you believe or do for a living, wherever you live, whatever you have or lack, that you have something to show this world. You have a way to help heal it, if you will find the strength to act, day after day, with kindness and courage.
Well, I think I’ve probably done enough telling here. It’s time for me to click “publish,” then get up and get going. My hands and feet need to get to work, and I hope that in some small way, this post has heartened you to do the same. Let’s walk the walk together.
The world sometimes needs to be told what we think. But for the world to change, it needs to be shown what we believe.
Thank you again for reading! If you are interested in finding ways to take positive actions in your community, here are some suggestions:
- Donate supplies or money to natural disaster relief. If you have the resources to donate funds, then the Red Cross, UNICEF, United for Puerto Rico, Save the Children, and One America are some examples of reputable, impactful organizations. You can also look for emergency supply collection drives in your own community. Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente Museum ran a huge drive last weekend, and it only cost me a brief, cheap trip to Aldi and a quick jaunt to the drop-off to contribute some diapers and bottled water. Alternately (if you’re less squeamish than I am), you can donate blood to the Red Cross like my husband does.
- Volunteer through a church or neighborhood organization. No matter your beliefs, you can find a group doing good and start doing good with them. Start with an email or two to groups like Habitat for Humanity or Big Brothers, Big Sisters and see what their needs are. If you want to work through a church, see if yours supports a local food pantry or serves a monthly dinner at a homeless shelter. At my church, we’re also looking into starting a weekly “homework help” program for the surrounding neighborhood.
- Help a refugee in your community. Refugees from war-ravaged countries have gone through destitute camps and multiple years of vetting to arrive in the United States, and they need help settling into life in America. Start with a Google search for “How can I help refugees in [your city]?” Last November I found Pittsburgh’s Jewish Family and Children’s Service; JF&CS provides a range of invaluable community services including a volunteer program for working directly with refugee families. Thanks to that program, I’ve spent six months meeting with an amazing young family of five from Syria; we practice English and watch our children play together.
- Join a local chapter of an advocacy group. This can be a great way to stay plugged in to ways you can actively help a cause that is important to you. For instance, I just joined Everytown for Gun Safety and found out that there is a local chapter that meets monthly.
- Build community where you are. Random acts of kindness can go a long way. Every Christmas Eve, my mother leaves a bin of blankets, water bottles, ready-to-eat foods, and other necessities outside an urban church with a simple, small sign: “Please take what you need.” It’s not through any larger organization or program; she just decided one year that it was a tradition she wanted to start. And remember, no act of kindness is too small to make a difference to someone else.
- Use your own skill set. You don’t have to single-handedly build a house or put out a forest fire to make an impact! I have friends at church who knit and crochet shawls and blankets to give to families in need. If you like to cook or bake, take meals to families in a tough time. If you’re looking to get some exercise in, see if you can take a neighbor’s dog for a walk or a jog with you. If you’re an extrovert, head out to local events to participate. If you’re an introvert, think about what you like to do or make at home and then think about who could benefit from it. If you have expertise in a subject or field, see if you can tutor in an after-school program in your neighborhood. You can write letters to elderly friends, or veterans, or inmates, or your elected representatives, or all of the above. Write them with kindness and courage!
I firmly believe that persistent actions of kindness and courage like these can change this world for the better. Let’s get to work.
One response to “The Importance of “Show, Don’t Tell””
Excellent piece, Joy. Will be sharing.