Showing vs. Telling at the Olympics

By Doug Wagner

Show, don’t tell. Many of us have heard it so many times that we’re wary of telling anyone anything ever again.

But the truth is, showing is the key to memorable writing. Readers remember writing that made them feel something, and painting a picture—showing—is the only path to making them feel something. If a scene doesn’t take readers someplace that’s utterly real to them, if they don’t have the sensation of being right there in it with your characters, they won’t feel what your characters feel. There will be a distance between reader and writing that will allow your story to fade from memory as quickly as the closing of a book.

In short, you have to earn readers’ joy and tears, and it’s very hard work. If, as you’re reaching for their hearts, you sound the slightest off-note, the spell can be broken and they won’t buy what you’re selling. This “show” business is an unforgiving one.

All of which makes it particularly galling to witness the kind of cheap, lazy approach to storytelling we saw at the winter Olympics this year —and have been seeing in sports “reporting” for years. To be sure, there seems to be at least one emotion-fraught story lurking in every Olympic event, but please, people, let us feel the love ourselves.

When the camera is showing us a figure-skating performance, for example, let us decide how emotional it is or if it’s emotional at all. Telling us it is—“This is such an emotional performance” (which I believe would be considered leading the witness if this were a trial)—doesn’t enhance the experience for us, especially if you do it while the skater’s still skating. (At least we can hit “mute” between performances while the commentators recap the feelings we just saw displayed.)

And when it comes to interviews with the athletes, how about letting expressions of emotion happen naturally? When you’re interviewing these good-natured folks about a potentially moving subject, how about helping them to tell us their story rather than going right for the throat with an insistent question about a loved one’s recent passing?

Some of the Olympics reporters aren’t even creative enough to mask their lack of creativity. More than once I heard someone say, “Tell me what emotions you’re feeling.” Really? Isn’t that a little personal to just ask a stranger out of the blue—a stranger who’s doing you a favor by agreeing to talk to you? How did you come by the expectation that your subjects owe you complete candor? Ever consider doing the work to make them want to share with you?

Questions of decorum aside, this is just plain lazy storytelling. Tell me what emotions you’re feeling? How about showing us something instead? How about painting a little picture for us in the two or three minutes you have? Drop in a little back story and a little compassion—“Your brother would have been proud. He was always your biggest supporter”—and you just might elicit some pithy, poignant comments before the tears fall.

Writers and TV interviewers are both storytellers, and as we all know, those who tell rather than show are the least effective kind, the least likely to connect with us. Oh, they might succeed in stirring our emotions even as they rip out and trample on others’, but those emotions are likely to be limited to anger and disgust.

The most disgusting interview I’ve seen occurred immediately after the Vikings beat the Packers in the last game of the 2012 season to earn a place in the playoffs, a game during which Adrian Peterson fell six yards short of breaking the single-season rushing record. Longtime sports reporter Pam Oliver asked Peterson what he was feeling in that moment, and presumably to Oliver’s surprise, Peterson appeared genuinely happy. Happy to have helped his team to the playoffs, since, you know, he’s part of a team and not just a man out for himself. But Oliver wasn’t having any of it. Sounding very well-rehearsed, she shook her head and said, “Six yards … That’s gotta hurt.”

See, she wasn’t happy with his happiness. That wasn’t the story she was looking for. She wasn’t interested in letting him decide what to show us. So she told him what to show us. Even if his disappointment at not breaking the record was secondary to his joy at his team’s victory, she locked in on his disappointment like a condor locks in on a carcass.

It was an example not only of telling rather than showing but of telling us an artificial, predetermined story rather than taking us somewhere real. And it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.


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