Seeing is believing — show, don’t tell

By · Friday, July 25th, 2014

Three elements in stories keep the audience interested and prevent a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

  1. Anecdotes
  2. Examples
  3. Details

How you use these in stories will make a difference in the end. More important, however, is capturing them in the first place. It takes time and patience and lots of follow questions.

Consider that a reporter plans to write a profile about full-time college students who also work full-time jobs to pay for tuition. How could the reporter show the story, not merely tell it? Following is a suggested process to elicit details, examples and anecdotes.

Details. During interviews, ask follow questions to get rich detail. If the student works and studies “long hours,” how many hours a day is that? What time does the student wake up? Go to sleep? How many of those hours are spent working? Studying? And where does the student study — in the library, in the residence hall, on a bus? What is the student’s job? What does it entail? Is it physical work? Does the student get a break? For how long? What does the student do during the break?

Result: Answers to these questions will provide details that show the long hours spent working and studying.

Examples. After these details are in hand, probe further to elicit examples. Ask about a typical day. Account for every hour of the student’s schedule at work, at school and at home. You might hear a great example such as the following one.

There was one day last week when the student slept for only 90 minutes in the student lounge after classes ended and before the job began, and another 90 minutes after the eight-hour shift ended. Getting by on those three hours of sleep, the student freshened up in a restroom, put on a clean shirt, grabbed a muffin and coffee, and crammed in some studying before a test.

Now ask more for more details, which will provide color and description for that example — a kind of cascading effect. Where was the restroom? Exactly what did the student do to freshen up and how often does this happen? Where was the clean shirt and what kind of shirt was it? What color? Was it in good shape or was it wrinkled? What kind of muffin? Where did the student eat it? How many minutes or hours did the student study for the test? And in what subject was the test?

Result: You can show the story by utilizing memories from personal interviews — what you saw, heard, experienced or asked.

Anecdotes. These are like little scenes — vignettes — in a movie, and they involve readers in the story.

Result: Good anecdotes support the story’s vivid details and examples. A classic anecdote for the story about the sleep-deprived student would be a vignette about … 

… the time the student fell asleep in the front row of a lecture hall, forehead touching the tabletop, quietly snoring in front of 83 fellow students and the professor, whose voice gradually lowered to a whisper in mid-sentence until — wham! — the professor yelled out the student’s name and asked the student a question. Startled, the student’s head sprang back, and a cup of coffee spilled.

How would you even get this anecdote? By asking. This means asking question after question, seeking detail after detail, and using every piece of information that will show, not tell. Everyday people usually are not in the habit of talking in specifics; they tend to share general information until a reporter asks. Three key questions will get you started on capturing those specifics.

Put yourself in the place of the audience. Ask yourself: What would I want to know about this person? Can I visualize this person’s busy life? Keep asking questions until you can see it.

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