Lessons from Fiction: Show and Tell

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“Show, don’t tell.” It’s a constant challenge for writers, filmmakers, and photographers, whether they’re telling stories based in fact or fiction. And it’s just as important for the stories we tell about our efforts to reduce poverty around the world.

Painting pictures with words creates context and draws your audience in. It makes her feel like she’s a part of the story. For example, one person who does this well is Rukmini Calimachi, a New York Times journalist who writes primarily about terrorism. Yet her reporting captures imagery both beautiful and raw, and maintains a distinctly human element even as she writes about tough subjects and upholds high journalistic standards.

When we tell stories about and for development, adhering to the principle of showing instead of telling provides the opportunity to transport your audience to another world. It allows us to show the context of time, place, moods, and other people. It helps the audience connect to the people and events shown or described on a deeper, more empathetic level.

So how do you show instead of tell? It’s not about using sweeping adverbs or going into minute details about irrelevant topics. There are different ways to show instead of tell:

  • Set the scene. Reveal the environment the people you’re talking about find themselves in.
  • Provide a snapshot of real-life events that represent the statistics you’re discussing. We should use data to support the personal stories, but we have to think of more engaging ways to share that data. A snapshot or anecdote is one way to set up the data in a more interesting way.
  • Embrace colors, textures, and emotions in writing and visuals. These add richness and layers to the story.
  • Use quotes and dialogue. This adds interest and provides vital perspective from the true protagonists of the story.
  • Use precise language instead of vague generalities. This gives the story life and

Of course, showing has its limits. The key is finding the right blend of showing and telling. This is especially true in international development storytelling, as we blend tools from journalism, documentary storytelling, and fiction. Too much detail can make you lose your audience and your focus. Not enough can make the story feel stale and distant.

Reporting facts doesn’t have to be boring. Following these tips for showing and telling can breathe life into the stories we share about our work. In fact, perhaps it’s time to think beyond storytelling and embrace story-showing. 



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