The Left Brained Writer Learns to Show, Not Tell

In Craft, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on October 10, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Guest post by Mike Fine

I suspect I may be one of the most “left-brained” writeMikers out there. After 20+ years as a software engineer and managing technical teams and technical projects, I discovered—lo and behold—I love writing! How strange is that? Well, probably not very strange to you if you’re reading this post, but it was certainly strange to me when I first realized it about 10 years ago.

There’s a great deal about being educated and trained as an engineer that works against me as a writer. First, while all of you were probably reading the great works—Austen, Bronte, Melville, Tolstoy—you know the list better than I do—I was taking the easiest Language Arts classes I could find. I had all of these advanced math and science classes, you see…

Second, and more seriously, engineers are trained to distill an issue to its core. The essence of a thing is what matters to engineers; we like to simplify and abstract, to get right to the point. The good news is that because of this, I rarely struggle finding a theme or central idea for my writing. I rarely fear that I’m going to write some long-winding run of flowery prose with no point. I am rarely without a solid outline. The problem is, readers don’t want to be hit over the head and be told the morale or theme, they want to feel it, to experience it. Stories are supposed to immerse the reader in a detailed world with believable characters so that they—the reader—infer the message(s) from the story. And, of course, sometimes, readers will infer things we never intend as writers. I have to force myself to remember this—something I think comes more naturally to most other writers with their predominately right-brained brains.

 Third, because I’m focused more on the essence of the primary arc of the story and the critical characterizations of the main characters, my writing often feels rushed, too much like a treatment than a story. The structures of my stories are usually sound; I struggle with adding enough detail. My wife often says that I’ve painted the trunk of the tree and the larger branches, but none of the smaller twigs or the leaves. Again, I suspect others with different educational backgrounds and personalities have an easier time with this sort of “inside out” nature of writing. I have to constantly remind myself: show the leaves in all their splendor, and let the reader infer that there’s a tree holding them up.

 Like many writers, I struggle to ensure that my writing follows the old maxim, “show, don’t tell.” For years, I couldn’t get my weak engineer brain around this concept. Then, finally, I came up with a way to think about this. I think even you non-engineers out there might benefit from thinking about things this way.

 When we’re guilty of “telling” instead of “showing,” what’s really the problem? It’s that we’ve summarized too much. If I tell you that “Abe and Ben fought,” your experience is much different than if I describe the right crosses, the chipped teeth, and the broken tables. I get that. You get that. Most everyone gets that. But how do we ensure that we don’t fall into the summarization trap? Simple: engage your left brain a little bit.

 Here’s the idea: allocate a certain amount of space—words, paragraphs, or pages—for a scene. Say to yourself, this scene has to take X pages. Let’s take our fight scene. Imagine it’s important to our story. We want to slow time down and stretch this conflict out for all the drama we can milk out of it. So, how many pages should the fight take up on paper? Three pages? Five? Ten?

 Once you decide how many pages (or paragraphs) you want the fight to last, you simply cannot summarize “too much.” If you do, your writing will stop short of your allotted space! If I write that “Abe and Ben fought,” I have to stare at the remaining 9 ½ blank pages for the scene. I have to fill them up. How can I do it? I can start to describe what happens in more detail and by slowing down time. I cannot stop editing and improving my scene until it fills up the space I’ve allocated for the scene. Is it possible I can introduce other kinds of problems into my writing—dialogue that drags, character descriptions that are too lengthy, etc.? Sure. But one thing that’s almost certain: my writing is much more likely to slow time down so that I provide enough details. And that’s something my readers will hopefully enjoy.


Mike is the co-creator of the Young Writers’ Story Deck Writing Program. He writes technical, marketing, and educational pieces for high tech companies and school districts. He has written novels, short stories, screen plays and stage plays. His stage play “Building a Bridge” was produced in the 2008-09 school year in Sebastopol and received rave reviews. See  for more information about the play. His short screenplay “Time Capsule” is slated for production for some time in 2009 or 2010. In February 2008, Kansas student and forensics competitor Taylor Montgomery performed Mike’s piece “Pushed”, placing 2nd out of 40 competitors and qualifying for State Champs. Mike’s creative writing can be found at Mike is an active volunteer in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, and has been an active volunteer in the Morgan Hill Unified School District and at Rocketship Education in San Jose, California.

  1. Interesting. I’m also a software engineer-turned writer. (or attempting). I don’t think this failure to “show” is specific to engineers, it’s simply how we’re trained in school nowadays.

    Your technique sounds interesting, but it’s not clear that most writers struggle with lack of detail. I can take one sentence of telling and turn it into ten pages of telling. Instead of “They fought” I can write “Tom hit Jim with a pipe. This made Jim angry. Jim found his own weapon, a 2×4, and hit Tom. Tom wasn’t happy. He yelled at Jim.” It still all telling and not showing. It’s just a more detailed list of events.
    Now I’ll attempt showing:
    Tom grasped the cold metal in his hand, and twirled it at Jim, thudding into his shoulder and eliciting a howl. Jim knelt, his hands closing on a 2×4. Tom ducked, but the wood impacted his elbow and shot spears of pain up arm to the point of numbness. His breath ragged, he managed to shout “you bastard” while holding his now useless appendage.

    I never have to tell the reader they’re fighting, or that they’re angry or hurt, or that they’re yelling, or what they’re doing. The key to showing is to let the reader figure all that stuff out.

  2. Great article Mike. I could use of your structural/distilling talent in my own writing, but I like (hope) to think that most writers struggle with strengths and weaknesses in their writing.

    By the way, I still haven’t read 80% of the ‘greats’ :o)…I feel like I should but I’ve always thought there are so many greats living today to keep up with.

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