Show, Don't Tell... And why Scene-style Writing is More Effective

Happy 2014, and sorry to have been absent so long. Working on book two of my series and building our other blog (

I've missed the lively editing discussions we had here, so I'm going to use my ideas spurred from my current class, Sensational Scenes (which is open for enrollment thru 1/24 ) to cover a few fun topics here.

Today, one of my lovely students today asked a great question challenging the concept of "show, don't tell". As she pointed out, many of the classic authors "told" plenty. And though I actually LOVE telling when it's done well (I'm a big Hardy fan!), my job is to teach why scene-style writing is so much more effective today for storytelling.
Here was my reply to her wonderful question...

Great point about "show don't tell" and how those classics worked well for their day, especially for readers who were educated and accustomed to repainting everything in their heads. Shakespeare's works, of course, were acted out, and not read widely till much, much later... but playwriting is also based on scene-style writing.

So this brings up a very interesting point about modern-day READABILITY (I used to work in the accessibility world at Microsoft) and the science of reading. Today, we have a visual media world and shorter attention spans/schedules, which is another reason why SCENE style writing is so effective. It mimics the medium of film, or at least replicates its structure so the reader can plug-n-play more readily. How fast/well/deep a reader can understand the written word translates into higher readability. That's what scene-style writing aims to achieve.

Let's go deeper.... What we see on film we experience, believe it or not. Our brain doesn't know the difference between reality and what's happening to that main character we've taken on as ourselves, except that we've taught the brain to reason/consruct that separation. But that ability to separate was not always present.

The mimic part of our brain is strongest from birth to 2/3, when we don't recognize our separation from parentage. What they do, we do. They lift their hand, we lift our hand. They laugh, we laugh, they smile, we smile (except of course when the baby is screaming it's head off). Mimicry is how we learn so fast, years before we can even rationalize concepts or reason that we are "learning".
Why, and what does this have to do with film/books?

A few times a year I get to teach at the UW locally on this subject, and we talk mostly about which words best invoke the brain's engagement and ability to "see/experience" what is written. My answer is always "verbs." Verbs are the closest thing to realistically/physically mimicking action.  If I say ball, you may picture an inanimate object, but there is no action. If I say throw, your brain mimics the act of throwing, even sends messages to the nerves in your arm. That's powerful! (Did I mention they've proven that folks who imagine working out have better muscle memory when they actually work out).

Anyway, verbs are even more powerful than nouns, because verbs can engage more of the brain/body connection. (We'll leave aside proper nouns, such as a spouse/child's name which can evoke the emotions more powerfully at times). Verbs have inherent action, and in scene-style writing they drive the "showing" because they make up a lot of action narrative. "Dick and Jane" is one of the best books any author or editor should study. Most of the book is written with a verb/noun construction (see Jane run, see Dick fall and make a fool of himself in front of Jane), which makes it really effective.

Okay, long explanation, but the summary is that in the world of READABILITY and improving the reader's experience, verbs and visuals are most powerful. These help readers perceive a scene and its actions via "information at a glance". "She smiled from mouth to eyes" (showing) is more effective than writing "she was so happy" (telling). Why? Because your brain mimicked the act of smiling when it read the verb, but has to "interpret" the phrase "was happy," which is a judgment.

Hope this makes sense. So much harder to teach this concept on paper than verbally....but please let me know any questions or if I can clarify anything.

I'd love to hear/see your examples of where telling works well/better than showing. I think it's important to know how to do both!