Tell, Don’t Show

November 6, 2018 § 18 Comments

By Barbara Harvey-Knowles

CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic

It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.

My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.

We all know “show, don’t tell.”  Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.

I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.

What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.

To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?

Maybe not.

Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?

Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.

Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.

The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.

But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?

Sometimes, yes.

In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:

Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent.  It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.

Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.

But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.

As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.


Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog,, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections. 

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§ 18 Responses to Tell, Don’t Show

  • Karen says:

    “a powerful flash of connection” You put so well what I strive for in scene or summary. Thank you.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    Thank you for your comment, and especially for reading this article. I agree with you completely. It is the powerful connection that we all hope to achieve when we write.

  • equipsblog says:

    Wonderful job of fleshing out tell not show. We never get to deal with the nuances you have written about here.

  • Ann Coleman says:

    Very well put! I remember trying so carefully to weed out the “telling” in my stories, but sometimes it just didn’t work. I think especially when we are writing about a past trauma, the thing to write is what we felt…the terror, the shame, the grief, the pain, whatever we happened to experience….in the way that feels right. And then, as you say, the reader will relate to it.
    And it goes without saying that this article (congrats!) speaks volumes both to the treatment of assault victims as well as to writers. Thanks, Barb!

  • Ryder Ziebar says:

    Great post, Barb. Sometimes thinking differently makes all the difference.

  • Eric says:

    Great insight, and a great reminder that when it comes to writing, in the end the best writer is not the person who best follows all the writing “rules” (like “Show, don’t tell”). Instead the best writer is the one who can best apply the “rules” (or simply ignore them) given the circumstance for the sake of clear communication and connecting with the reader.

    • You said it in a nutshell. I believe that how you make the connection, and depending on what you are writing about, is what is important. I certainly add more detail in writing about certain things. But I try to be true to my memories and what “works” for me in writing about trauma. Thank you for your comments.

  • […] Read the complete article at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction […]

  • Gopika says:

    This was so empowering to read.

  • jeffseitzer says:

    I know exactly what you mean. I survived my son’s accidental drowning. I remember having a peaceful feeling while underwater with him. Someone in my writer’s group thought it would be better to describe the panic I felt. But I was drowning too and felt peaceful. What is more real?

    • Barb Knowles says:

      I always takes people’s perspectives of how I’ve written something under advisement, if I trust them. But only you can describe the trauma as you experienced it. By definition, whether writing in scene or more in summary, you have to tell your story your way. Thank you for commenting and sharing.

  • citybarker says:

    I have observed that in many aspects of life, it never pays to be extreme or legalistic.

    You have here reminded me that that too applies to “show not tell.”

    Just. for example, like the religious lawyers once had scorned Jesus, for violating their over-strict interpretations of useful but not meant to be etched in stone Sabbath rules.

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