Every writer has heard the phrase “show, don’t tell,” but figuring out exactly what that means can take a while.
This guide provides a strategy for deciding what to show vs. tell as well as some examples of the same material conveyed both ways. For more tips and resources, see: GUIDE – Using Narrative Techniques for Digital Storytelling
(1) Use a timeline to capture the key moments that relate to the story you want to tell
put them in chronological order for planning purposes only (you might not tell the story chronologically)
(2) For each moment, brainstorm details about the EXTERIOR LANDSCAPE:
- What was going on outside your heart and mind?
- What were you doing with your face, body language, and behavior?
- What were you saying?
- What were others doing and saying?
exterior = what you show
use as material for the NARRATIVE parts of the story
i.e., the “scenes”
Details for “showing” include:
- names of main characters
- facial expressions
- body language
- location and setting
- date and time
- sensory details (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch)
(3) Also brainstorm details about the INTERIOR LANDSCAPE:
- What was going on inside your heart and mind?
- What were you feeling and thinking?
interior = what you tell
use as material for the REFLECTION parts of the story
i.e., the “voiceover”
(4) Use the details from the EXTERIOR and INTERIOR landscapes you brainstormed to transform the moment into a SCENE, whether in a written narrative, screenplay form, or plans for a comic or animation.
One reason I encourage students to use screenplay format to plan their digital stories is that this format helps you focus on “showing” your story rather than “telling” it. In other words, it helps you figure out what to show on screen, since that’s your primary vehicle for conveying your story.
EXAMPLE FROM LAMBERT #1
The excerpt below is from: Lambert, Joe. Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community (Kindle Locations 289-292). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
I remember my dad sitting in that chair one afternoon. A book in hand, glasses perched on his nose. Cigarette in the ash tray.
He raised his head and looked at me.
“Remember that story I told you about the guy in San Antonio. The painter?”
I had remembered the story. Natividad – A character in my father’s stories of union organizing in San Antonio, Texas – A Mexican-American artist. One story told about he had painted something critical of the local Catholic bishop on the wall of cathedral. He then sat across the street to watch the nuns try desperately to wash the paint off the wall. Another story was about Natividad’s studio up above a storefront near downtown. The staircase was no wider than two and half feet. Despite having to lug his canvas up and down the narrow stairs, the artist had chosen the place precisely. No cop in San Antonio could fit his rump in there to chase him.
My dad would laugh and laugh. And I would laugh with him. These stories made my father happy – ingenuous ways to make those redneck authorities in Texas squirm.
“What about him, dad?”
“Nothing,” my dad just smiled. “I was just thinking about him is all.”
He took a puff of his cigarette. His eyes returned to the book.
[TELLING / EXPLAINING ]
When I am explaining an idea to you, I want to be clearly understood. I want very little distance between my intended meaning, and your perceived meaning. To accomplish this, I need to be precise. I need the ideas to be substantiated by argument, where each example, each concept, builds upon the other, toward a coherent conclusion.
But when I tell a story, reflecting on moment in time, and reflecting on that reflection, I am not so concerned about interpretation. Perhaps I imagine my meaning is evident. While I might hope you would read something similar to me about what this story tells about the source of my political views, I am not trying to convince you to share them. I want you to relate my experience to your own.
Much more important is that my feeling is evident. Unconsciously, I am sure I tell stories that I hope would endear me to you; or at least create an emotional connection between us. An intimacy. When I am in conversation and drop into telling a story, something changes about my choice of words, about the way I describe interactions, impersonating the characters, pulling out the details, feeling, even as I recite my memories, how the actual events worked upon my psyche, how they changed me.
EXAMPLE FROM LAMBERT #2
From Chapter 2 of the Digital Storytelling Cookbook
(explaining what happened)
Well, first of all, let me just say that I was seventeen at the time and I had finished high school that summer. My dad had smoked three-packs-a-day and had been trying to quit smoking for a couple of months. He was sixty-one and had a difficult life as a union organizer working in Texas and throughout the South. But we had gone on a vacation the month before and he seemed like he was doing okay.
He came down from his bedroom saying that he had a terrible pain.
We called the doctor. The doctor said that it was probably an ulcer attack. He had had several of those. We waited. He got much worse. We decided to rush him to the hospital. It was a heart attack. He died within a half-hour. My mom was hysterical.
It was a night I will always remember.
(helping us feel the emotional impact)
I will never forget the sound of my mom’s voice when the doctor said, “George is dead.”
“God No! No! No!”
A scream. A release. An explosion.
The sound of her wail bounced off all the walls of the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, bounced down the streets and through the trees, bounced out into the night sky, all the way across the universe of my young mind.
In a single moment, a single pronouncement, everything changed for my mom. It divided her life in two, and it taught me that love can reach down into the cellular essence of awareness, and with its rupture, tear a human being in half.
STUDENT EXAMPLE #1
Original passage from a student’s synopsis and my revision.
(what we can’t see on screen)
She was feeling happy, excited, nervous, and a little sad all at the same time. She couldn’t wait to go spend 4 months in Prague. Growing up Mary always had a close relationship with her family.
(what we can see on screen)
Mary is sitting in the airport waiting area, wringing her hands and looking at everyone around her instead of at the book in her lap. After a few minutes of nervous agitation, she opens her purse and digs out her iPhone. She begins flipping through the photos her parents recently sent her of the places they’ve been to in Prague. She smiles lovingly at each photo.
STUDENT EXAMPLE #2
Original opening from a student’s verbal story and my revised opening.
Strategy: Show us what the characters were doing, rather than explaining it
The restaurant roared with the different crowds that gathered for brunch on Sunday evening. We sat, as a table of 7 in the middle of the chaos, trying to gain as much organization as possible. With the 3 siblings at the time, the oldest child being my sister, age 9, my parents and uncle had enough work cut out for them than they might have wanted. Like any parent would do, my father searched for anything that would keep us from climbing on the seats, going under the table, or just flat out screaming for food. “What about we go on a bear hunt?” He said. With wide eyes and huge smiles, every kid at the table jumped up and ran out the door. As we followed my Dad, we recited the line from a popular child’s book “were going on a bear hunt.”
“Hey, kids. What do you say we go on a bear hunt?,” Dad said.
My sister froze on her way out from under the table, my brothers stopped squalling for more fries, and I stopped climbing along the back of the booth.
“Well, what do you think?,” Dad said again, a little more quietly.
What had been a chaotic scene of four children doing their best to drive three adults to the point of exasperation slowly transformed into six sets of wide eyes and gaping mouths, all directed at my dad.
“You’re not serious,” Mom said, raising one eyebrow as she looked at him sideways.
“A bare what?,” asked Uncle Joe, who had tried to tune out the chaos by wearing my earbuds, without attaching them to anything.
“Where’s the bear?” Alan and Mark said in unison.
“He’s out behind this restaurant,” Dad said. “The owners told me the other day that this little brown bear just showed up and made himself at home.”
Sally narrowed her eyes at Dad. She was the youngest of us, at age 4, but you couldn’t pull one over on Sally. She had her doubts.
Not me. I really wanted it to be true, so I said, “Yeah, Dad. Let’s go on a bear hunt!”
As we gathered up our things and headed to the door, I could hear Dad speaking quietly to Mom and Uncle Joe, but I was too excited about the bear hunt to hear what he said. Once we were outside, we let Dad lead the way.