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Mug Shots and the Meaning of Show, Don't Tell

How this classic breakfast beverage bearer teaches us the subtle art of "show, don't tell."

By Addison HornerPublished about a year ago 4 min read

I have a strategy for picking out the day's coffee mug.

I open the cabinet and pick whatever's closest to my hand.

Okay, that's not a strategy. It barely qualifies as an action.

On this particular morning, the winner is a salmon-colored number from a pair I'd bought at Target. The inscription: This is going well.

Along with its partner – a blue one that reads I'm going back to bed after this – this mug encapsulates the kind of dry, sarcastic humor that scratches an itch in my brain. It's dripping with the insinuation that things are, in fact, ranging from passable to patently awful.

Today I noticed that the word well had begun to rub off. After an indeterminate length of time – i.e., however long they say it'll take for Florida to become an island – friction and fricative forces will reduce the inscription to the following:

This is going.

Maybe it's because I'm a minor Millennial, semi-raised on Internet culture and inane memery, but that made me giggle. The shift from This is going well to This is going, and everything implied therein, carries layers of narrative imagery. It's a prime example of the age-old adage show, don't tell.

Let me tell you about showing you.

For the uninitiated, show, don't tell is a writing technique explained in detail here. It's one of those instructive idioms, like Look both ways before you cross the street or Never get involved in a land war in Asia, that inspires excellent writing and endless Instagram posts by wannabe author-influencers in equal parts.

(I'm guilty of the latter, and jonesing for a conviction in the former.)

An example of telling: I'm hungry.

An exapmle of showing: My stomach growls.

It's all about word economy – using fewer words to convey more information and a stronger emotional experience for the reader. If I tell you my stomach is growling, you can feel the hunger with me, because you know that sensation of gnawing emptiness in your gut.

For a stronger example, let's get back to the mugs.

Exhibit A: the best mystery movie I've ever watched.

Knives Out is a great movie. Any film that layers powerful imagery and foreshadowing with gut-busting humor and impeccably mediocre Cajun accents is a winner. Let's analyze two moments from Knives Out – one from the opening sequence, one from the final shot.

The movie starts with housekeeper Fran preparing breakfast for Harlan Thrombey, a celebrated mystery author. Whether Fran used my ironclad strategy for picking out mugs, I cannot say, but you can see her choice in this shot from that sequence:

My house. My rules. My coffee!!

It's a funny mug on its own. Not gut-busting, but chuckle-inducing.

Fast forward to the end of the film. Harlan's murder has been solved, and his entire estate has been bequeathed to Marta, a nurse portrayed by the brilliant Ana de Armas. Marta must now decide: will she keep the inheritance or share it with Harlan's quibbling, quixotically quarrelsome family?

Instead of telling us, director Rian Johnson shows us the answer in this brilliant closing sequence:

Every time I watch this movie, it scratches an itch. The foreshadowing and subsequent callback are not only funny, but layered with meaning and implication.

"But Addison," you say, sipping from your I'm going back to bed after this mug, "that's a movie. How do you write like that?"

Glad you asked.

1. Engage the senses.

Sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Think about the ways your body interacts with the world around you right now. What does the tension in your shoulders say about your current situation?

Nothing is just something. Everything is more than one thing. When writing a character, let their experience of the external world shape the reader's journey through the story.

Bonus: Take a sensory moment from one scene and place it in a different context to show how a character has changed in between.

2. Write humans, not robots.

In a movie, emotion shows in the faces and voices and expressions of the actors. On the page, it works the same way.

Tell: He was anxious.

Show: He wiped a stray bead of sweat from his temple.

Out of context, it's just a sentence. In the context of an emotionally charged scene, these threads form a tapestry of experience that keeps your reader engaged.

3. Act it out.

You know how humans do things, don't you?

Amateur writers (myself included) often write people that don't act like people. When writing dialogue or actions meant to inspire an emotional response, ensure that your choices make sense.

I.e., do you always raise your eyebrows when you're surprised?

Act it out in front of a mirror. Learn from the source, i.e., an actual human. That's you!

4. Read the kind of prose you want to write.

I've found some killer writers on Vocal. Here are two of my favorites.

I want the contact info for Madoka Mori's tension supplier, because she distributes it like candy throughout her prose. Check out this Challenge-winning entry:

Morgana Miller (yay for authorial alliteration!) uses big words that don't make her audience feel small. The images she crafts stick in my mind long after I read her work. This one, written for the Broken Mirror challenge, deserves to be a winner:

Oh, look, an article I wrote. How'd that get in here?

Let me know: what are your favorite examples of show, don't tell?


I write a newsletter about writing. I write books, too. You can read the former and learn about the latter here:

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About the Creator

Addison Horner

I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. MARROW AND SOUL (YA fantasy) available February 5, 2024.

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Comments (2)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knockabout a year ago

    Wonderfully insightful & entertaining. And your suggested readings were astounding! Thank you for this.

  • Mark Gagnonabout a year ago

    When I review some of my earlier stories and compare them to my most recent ones, it's easy to track the trend from telling to showing. Still, much more work to do. Thanks!

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