"Show, Don't Tell" and Barbara Robinette Moss

Just how far should we take that enduring rule for writers, "Show, don't tell"? As Barbara Robinette Moss demonstrates in her fine memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter, we probably can't take it far enough. Moss has the challenging task of conveying shocking, painful scenes that raise strong emotional reactions in her readers. Here's how she does it:

"I want this place spotless!" Dad shouted, waving one hand while holding a beer in the other. "This place is a pigsty!" He stumbled backward, bumped into the kitchen sink and dropped the beer to the floor. He turned around and steadied himself, cleared his throat, then turned back to face us, shoving the dish rack full of clean dishes onto the floor as he turned. Shattered bits of glass pierced my bare legs and I sat up with a jerk. John slid from his chair and ran under Mother's arm. I straightened up and put my feet on the floor, as did the others, in case we needed to run. David rubbed a cut on his foot and wiped the blood on his T-shirt. Mother breathed an exasperated sigh, wrapped her arms around John and dropped her shoulders into her numb, impervious state.

Moss "shows, doesn't tell" about pain, fear, and sadness. Rather than tell us how frightening her father was, she describes his drunken rampage. To express her own shock and pain, she describes how she "sat up with a jerk." One brother runs fearfully to their mother, while all the children prepare to dash to safety.

While Moss's style is abrupt, it is also direct and effective. By simply showing what happened, she eliminates extraneous commentary. She does not have to describe how she and her siblings felt, because by showing us their experience, she calls up their emotions within us.