#37 How Do You Make Your Stories Really Come to Life?
The simple but essential value of showing, not telling
I want to start this note with a thank you to all of the readers who reached out via email or comments with their own stories, perspective and experience of burnout after my post last week. It really does help to know we’re not alone in it and that my sharing helped other folks access new resources as they go on their own healing journey. A few people asked that I continue to share my experience over the next few months, and I certainly intend to.
For this week, though, we’re getting back to some storytelling fundamentals; A simple directive that may be familiar but is so essential for rich storytelling in all mediums: Show, don’t tell.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying before. If you’re a writer who has ever taken even one writing course, you’re probably sick of hearing it—I’m not, but I wouldn’t fault anyone who is. It’s an important lesson and one that all storytellers, especially those who work with words, need to know and internalize. Even those who work in other mediums need to use this rule in their work. A designer whose work needs explanation without creating immediate emotions and associations hasn’t quite pushed far enough and leveraged the brand strategy effectively to bring an idea to life through design elements.
But, what does it mean to show and not tell? It’s about painting pictures in the mind of your audience. Rather than saying, “the dog saved its owner’s life,” you bring the moment to life. “The greying retriever was the first in the building to notice the smoke billowing up from the basement. He barked loudly waking the entire house, including his owner who followed old Benji out of the building just as his bedroom floor collapsed into the basement unit below where the fire had begun.”
In other words, don’t tell me what happened, describe it—bring it to life visually. With design it’s about imagery and signifiers that speak to an idea. This is so important in stories because it adds richness and depth but is also true for presentations and resumes and job interviews. It’s about bringing your audience along by providing details and examples that come to life in living colour. It’s the difference between reading the words on a slide during a presentation (don’t do that if you’re presenting to an audience that can easily read it) or bringing the slide to life through examples and detail.
It’s the best feedback any storyteller can get, because it means there’s an opportunity to improve your story and make it more engaging for your audience. Your ugly first draft may have a lot of moments of telling; the work of editing is often about catching and revising those moments with details. A simple tip: focus on including specific, animate details and it’ll help you bring your “show” moments to life.
This one thing will make your stories exponentially better.
A Story Well Told
No less than 10 different people recommended I read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell over the past few months. Some because they knew I was managing burnout and struggling with slowing down and others because they knew I’d be curious about other approaches to taking on the days as I started my creative sabbatical last September. It gained new meaning in the face of my burnout but was also interesting to read last year when I was considering new ways of being in the world. It’s a very thoughtful book and has been on my list of stories to share with you since I finished it last year. I hesitated because it felt a little too in the author’s head for my taste, and comes from a very privileged experience. But it does offer new ways of looking at the world, which is so helpful for storytellers to consider. If you read it (or have read it) let me know what you think, share in the comments below or send me a note. I think I may read it a second time with this new perspective of exploring play and productivity in my life (I’ll tell you more about that soon).
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.