Show, Don’t Tell.

“Anton Chekhov said, and I quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” – and I believe nobody else said it better,” said Professor Pullet to her students, some of whom were still struggling to find a vacant seat, “or at least not someone I have had a chance to read… yet,” she added as an afterthought.

Once she was done wiping the whiteboard clean, she turned around to face her class. A thin face emerging from a neatly tucked cloud of steel grey hair, a sharp nose offset by a pair of round reading glasses the color of beet, and lips as thin and straight as paper – Professor Pullet had a reputation of being strict, and her face only reinforced the fact.

As her alert, cold eyes bounced off of the students’ faces after a second’s rest, the room’s entire population was assured of two things: one, that Miss Pullet was a force to be reckoned with, and two, that she had indeed leafed through enough books to command the authority with which she spoke.

“Do I have your attention now, students?” Pullet spoke slowly, shifting her weight to her hands, while her fingernails grew pale against the wooden table-top. “I hope you don’t need me to repeat what I said earlier, but I will, nonetheless, for the words of Chekhov deserve repetition – incessant repetition – unless young writers like you internalize them.”

These students weren’t in attendance against their wishes, as some would think, no. They were there because they knew that Pullet’s lessons were crucial, even if they were conventional. They regarded her highly and made adjustments in their time-tables to accommodate her slot. And so, Pullet’s class seldom had seats for want of a taker.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” Pullet repeated with relish. “Words of Anton Chekhov – one of the greatest writers of short fiction.” Straightening up, she continued, “What is wonderful about this quote is that it not only speaks about showing as opposed to telling when writing, but it also demonstrates exactly how to achieve that… Now, I’m assuming you have read at least one of his short stories before you came in here, because otherwise, it’s a shame. It’s a shame not because you should’ve read him by now – actually a little bit of that too. But more so because otherwise you’re just wasting your time in this class today. There is only so much Chekhov I can quote, and there is only so much Chekhov you can catch.”

Walking around the room, she asked, “So how many of you have read his work and remember enough to make sense of what I just said? A show of hands, please.” And with this request, she stopped to count the hands that went up – some hesitant, others shooting straight up. “Eighteen. Out of… what, thirty?” Drawing a long breath amidst a background of shuffling feet, Professor Pullet made her way to the front of the classroom.

“I always say that effective writing makes for effortless reading. What you want to strive for is that your writing creates in the minds of your readers an image. But that is only the starting point. As the story progresses, the image should evolve into a motion picture.” Turning to the whiteboard, Pullet wrote: ‘Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, Sound,’ and then replacing the marker on the table noted, “You are to appeal to these senses through your writing in order to make it good. But mind you, there is a fine line between doing and overdoing it.

“Now, let’s say Deane is fired from her job unexpectedly – you could write reams of dialogue to show this – or she could open the door to her office and find that all her belongings have been swept into a box… You understand what I’m saying?”

There was a vague murmur of assent from the classroom interspersed with the opening of notebooks and the clicking of pens. Nodding at the response, Pullet turned back to the whiteboard and repeated the words written on it, “Can you give me examples for each of these- or, okay let’s do it differently.” Taking a minute to collect her thoughts, she continued thus, “How about I give you an object, and you try and show me something through that object? Get my drift?”

Pullet’s idea caused a palpable change in the class’ atmosphere – she could feel bubbling enthusiasm which was more than what she expected. Among hushed dialogues and clearing of throats, Pullet grabbed the back of her chair and dragged it to the front of the table. Perching on it, she said, “Let’s start with the basic. Wind and tree. C’mon.”

A damp cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest,” said one.

“Quoting from ‘The Bet’. Very good. And I like your presence of mind too,” said Pullet to no one in particular. But one could distinguish the student who earned the praise by the way he straightened up in his seat, with his lips quivering, threatening to smile. “This example,” Pullet continued, “is a good demonstration of writing to appeal to a reader’s sense of sight, touch, and sound.

Alright. Who can come up with something to do with – let’s see – fish scales gleaming in the sun?” Pullet’s own randomness made her chuckle.

“How about… a thousand barracudas weave a tapestry of sunlit electromagnets?” said a student, standing up.

There was some chuckling in the class. But ignoring it, Pullet looked at the boy approvingly and said, “Impressive. Very visual. A little jarring, maybe. But if given the right context… very well done.

“Okay. Next would be… A high tide and you.”

A minute passed before a faceless voice answered, “I looked up as a giant wave hovered over me, a frothing blue mouth about to swallow me whole.”

“Dramatic. Good,” and with a slight smile, Pullet got up and dragged the chair back to its original spot. “So it seems as though you all understand what I am saying. Which is good, very good indeed. But you will have to keep at it in order to really make it something that comes naturally to you; something that you don’t have to especially design.” Turning around to address the class again, “Which is why I want you to write a short story before our next class. It can be about anything, as long as you don’t tell me the moon is shining but show me the glint of light on broken glass,” and with a little chuckle, picked up her bag before she drew the class to an end, “Thank you so much for your time today. I’ll be seeing you next week. Surprise me with your stories – good luck.”

Writing Prompt:

“A thousand barracudas weave a tapestry of sunlit electromagnets.”


2 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell.

  1. You would make an excellent professor/teacher, as your writing is not only flowing but effectively takes the reader along on your journey. As Ms. Pullet eloquently states, “effective writing makes for effortless reading.”


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