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Writers — and parents: Show, don’t tell

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | April 17, 2012

One of the cardinal rules of writing is this: Show, Don’t Tell.

The rule means that when one is trying to describe a character’s actions, a writer should avoid describing inner states when possible, relying instead on showing the character’s actions. You can think about it as if the writer’s job is to describe a particular movie sequence faithfully, instead of describing his or her interpretation of that movie sequence. Rather than say, “he got really nervous when he saw her,” for example, you might say, “as he saw her stroll into the ballroom, his eyes grew wide. He began to feel as if his bowtie were tightening around his neck.” Some of my favorite authors– Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Alice Sebold– are almost cinematic in their prose, and reading them is like watching a long, delicious movie screening privately in your head. In this post and this post, you can see me practicing the cardinal rule.

I was at my six-year old son’s soccer practice the other day, reading about attachment theory, and as it happened I started reading an article entitled “Self-Esteem and If…then… contingencies of interpersonal acceptance” (Baldwin and Sinclair, 1996). This article is a classic, suggesting that people in contingent relationships (that is, relationships in which a loved one’s affection is contingent on certain behaviors, such as getting good grades) more strongly associate failures with rejection and may be at risk for low self-esteem.

Sitting by the bleachers of the soccer field where my son practiced, my heart dropped as I read the following paragraph:

author: Werner100359 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Little league sporting events provide an excellent opportunity for observing the interpersonal roots of self-evaluative styles. At a recent soccer game, one player’s father strode up and down the sidelines, yelling at his son to “do something with the ball.” If the boy managed to kick the ball in the right direction, his father beamed approvingly and called out, “That’s more like it” or “That’s my boy!”

If, instead, the young player was unsuccessful, his father seemed angry, frustrated, and ashamed of him, often yelling out nothing more than a tormented “No!” and burying his face in his hands as he turned away. Many psychologists would suspect that repeated experience with this kind of interaction might have an impact on the boy’s sense of self” (p. 1130).

I looked up as my son kicked the ball around, wondering how much I was like that father, trying to encourage him but instead deflating his self-esteem.

That night, I (of course) showered my son with love, and as night fell we sat on the bed and talked about dragons, kings, and wars in which bold warriors fought with swords for honor and chivalry.

As his bedtime arrived, I looked into his eyes before speaking.

“Son?”

“Yes?” he replied, stifling a yawn.

“You know I love you, right?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“You know that some children feel like their parents only love them if they score goals or get good grades?”

I gently took his face in my hands, and continued.

“Well, I want you to know that I love you no matter what. I will always support you, regardless of whether you score goals or not, regardless of what college you go to or what grades you get.”

His gaze squarely met mine, and he furrowed his brow slightly. We sat in silence; he was clearly formulating a thought. I waited for him.

“Dad?,” he finally ventured.

I held my breath. “Yes, son?”

He reflected for one more moment, and then asked,

“Would your eyeballs bleed if someone takes them out with a sword?”

I buried my head in the pillow, trying not to wake up his baby brother with laughter. Show, don’t tell, I promised myself. Show, don’t tell.

And at his next soccer practice, I clapped and nodded even when his passes went astray.

You can follow my posts through twitter and facebook. Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Writers — and parents: Show, don’t tell

  1. Aaron, that’s what we call, in writing, a non sequitur. Perhaps if you gave the article another read. . . .

    Great story! My epiphany in the realm of parenting came pretty much after my kids were grown and young adults: It was to adopt a parenting model of leadership.

  2. “Show, Don’t Tell. The rule means that when one is trying to describe a character’s actions, a writer should avoid describing inner states when possible, relying instead on showing the character’s actions.” Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t have real characters in fiction anymore, and no depth, is because no one has any inner thoughts—instead their eyes are just “growing wider and their bowties are tightening around their necks” as they witness some big event occurring in front of them. Stephen King and Michael Crichton, two of the towering figures in literature, give us movies “unfolding in our heads.” For that we have to be proud. No wonder no one reads any real fiction these days.

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