Storytelling: Don't tell me, show me

When I started writing professionally, I received the same advice over and over from editors about how to tell a captivating story.

“Don’t tell me," they said. "Show me.”

For people not used to writing or weaving stories, this advice might not make any sense. Showing your readers (or your customers, clients or donors) something, rather than telling them, is the difference between stating a fact, and using details and circumstances to make those facts real.

It's the difference between saying "that house is old and needs repairs" and "the mid-century ranch house leaned awkwardly to the side, with crumbling bricks dotting its exterior like acne pockmarks."

The first sentence tells you something. The second brings it to life in your mind and keeps it there. I learn particularly well from examples, so here's another one about my personal experience with seasickness.

I could just tell you I'm prone to seasickness. I could say the slow roll of a ship or the bounce of a Zodiac make me dizzy, queasy and miserable.

Instead, I'll tell you about the time I spent 29 days at sea on a Canadian warship off the coast of Somalia. In 2009, I embedded with the Canadian navy as part of a reporting assignment about our country's counter-piracy operations in the Middle East.

When my editor sat across from me at a table in the middle of the newsroom and asked if I wanted to go, I said yes instantly.

"Do you get seasick?" he asked.

"Very," I said. "But I want to go anyway."

My first three days on board HMCS Fredericton, I wore a seasickness patch behind my ear. I felt great but the medication blurred my vision and made me sleepy. The sailors mocked me for wearing the patch, saying I'd be just fine taking medication by mouth. They told me to fill my belly with carbohydrates and stay hydrated.

The day I took off the patch was the day the crew offered to show me all the ship's weaponry. I stood on the bridge as the commander ran through the frigate's arsenal, explaining the range and purpose of each gun and missile. I squinted at the horizon as it appeared to rotate from side to side with the ship's movement.

My stomach gurgled. My head spun.

I took shallow breaths, as two rings of sweat under my arms spread outward. I clenched and unclenched my hands, thinking about the contents of my stomach. Thirty minutes earlier, I'd eaten a bowl of grapes with shaky hands and washed down two pills with two big glasses of water.

The ship lurched to the side.

I whispered "bathroom!" to the sailor standing next to me. She pointed and I ran with my hand over my mouth, leaping through the oval door just in time to lean over the toilet and vomit with such force I almost fell in.

After five minutes, I emerged to find a grinning commander waiting for me.

"Do you want to shoot the machine gun?" he asked, holding out a flack jacket and helmet.

I swallowed the last of the bile at the back of my throat.


Again, I could have just told you I get seasick, but I wanted you to remember the story about the vomit and the machine gun.