Should you Always Show-Don’t-Tell?

I recently had the privilege of listening to Sara Pennypacker, author of the Clementine series of early-chapter books. Her books are widely recognized as a forte in capturing the reader and drawing them in. The opening scene of Book 1 has Clementine, a third grade dynamo, sitting in the principal’s office and a frequent comment is that the scene is hilarious (I’ve written about how well this scene orients the reader, too.)

But Pennypacker says she didn’t write it humorous. Rather, the reader wrote it funny. What does she mean?

Consider this line:
“Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal’s office, if that’s a rule.”

It’s funny. You know from this line that Clementine has answered the principal’s phone line and it resulted in disaster. Even without details or without the usual “Tell-Don’t-Show,” it’s funny. But the humor is created in the reader’s mind, by your imagination.

The technique of leaving out the most dramatic part in favor of letting the reader create meaning is useful, especially in opening lines. The danger is when it’s used too often or if it is used as a lazy crutch or excuse for not Show-Don’t-Telling. In other words, most of the time, the important details should be shown, not told. But sometimes, leaving out details and letting the reader fill them in is OK. It’s effective in Clementine’s opening page because it fits Clementine’s voice as a naive character and because Pennypacker already gave the reader specific details: Hamburger Surprise at lunch, Margaret’s mother coming to get her and so on.

Also, while what is left out is not specific, it is absolutely clear. The reader is not confused by having something left out. Clarity rules.

Notice, though, that this introduction is swiftly followed by a conventional scene with a stricter adherence to the Show-Don’t-Tell maxim. Used too often, leaving out the most dramatic part would just confuse the reader.

Another place to leave out the most dramatic information is when you set up a new scene. The tendency is to provide a summary–that holdover from having to write a thesis statement, probably.


Emily knocked on Bruce’s door. She just had to make it through his Christmas party.

Here, we’re told in a summary statement what the upcoming scene will entail, “making it through his Christmas party.” Instead, you could use a scene cut and let the reader experience the party for themselves.

Emily knocked on the door.
* * *
Emily wanted to plug her ears against the jazzed up Christmas carols that blasted above the crowd noise. She edged around the edge of the room toward the punch table, avoiding an elbow here and barely keeping a cowboy boot from stomping on her foot, hoping to find someone familiar.

Here, we are experiencing the party with Emily. Leaving out the summary statement about making it through the party strengthens the reader’s curiosity about what happens next. That’s the only thing we leave in question: what happens next? Don’t undercut this natural curiosity by summarizing the action before you present it. Time enough later for Emily to gripe to Joe about the lousy party.

Pennypacker had a hard task, to introduce a specific scene, to set up a voice, a character, a situation, and eventually a series of books about this endearing third grader. She succeeded by letting the reader participate in creating humor.

7 thoughts on “0

  1. Clementine is a perfect example! Night after night, my husband read Clementine to our daughter. As I listened, I appreciated Sara Pennypacker’s style. I laughed plenty and so did my family. Thank you for this helpful post.

  2. I love the way you make these things easy to see, and can explain them clearly.

    As I read this, I remembered a Calvin & Hobbes strip that was very brief,
    something like:

    Hobbes: Rough day at school?
    Calvin: I don’t want to talk about it.
    Hobbes: Does it have anything to do with those sirens around noon?

    Love it. Thanks.

  3. Jenny:
    Yes! Another great example. Seems like it might be easier to do in a cartoon strip b/c the limitations of 2-4 frames. Yet another reason we should learn to cut to the bare bones.

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