“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
That was how Anton Chekhov advised writers to “show, don’t tell.”
It’s a beautiful line. Powerful. Does exactly what it says.
But then — that’s Chekhov. It’s a pretty high bar.
To a lot of nonwriters, “show, don’t tell” sounds like some mysterious spell they don’t quite understand. They try to apply it through a ton of adjectives and adverbs, describing the thing they’re showing. Or they create labored analogies. Their work groans under the weight of all those similes and metaphors.
Rather than adding clarity and impact to their work, which is the point, they end up hiding their message behind a bunch of extra words.
So let’s put Chekhov to the side and play a game instead. Games are way more fun.
Have you ever played “tell me without telling me?” It’s a social media game. It starts with a challenge and people respond. For example:
“Tell me you’re short without telling me you’re short.”
“I think airplane seats have plenty of legroom.”
“Tell me you’re from the Midwest without telling me you’re from the Midwest.”
“I wear layers — just because it was 30 degrees when I left the house this morning doesn’t mean it won’t be 70 this afternoon.”
It’s a pretty fun game. Gets the creative juices flowing. And…it’s “show, don’t tell” in practice. When you “tell me without telling me” you’re showing the glint of light on glass.
The next time a piece of writing feels flat, see if you can find a place where “tell me without telling me” could give it a little life.
You might be a better writer than you thought.