One covenant of a successful live performance is adherence to the “Show, Don’t Tell” mandate.  In its most essential form, that mantra means action has much more value to the human heart than mere listening.  

When you show instead of telling, you are allowing the audience to reconcile what you say against what you actually do.

Everyone is full of talk.

Few people are capable of full action.

Anyone can say something; only a special few can take those ethereal words and make them meme something in a concrete world.

Amateur Playwrights love to tell instead of show.  They will always choose to have two characters have a telephone conversation instead of putting both characters in the same room to fight it out.

They will tell us the long history of a situation instead of letting that history become our now and unfold in the real time of the theatre.

They will always actively choose to kill a scene with dead narration rather than inspired live action.

You see a lot of telling on television, in the movies and on the live stage — but that doesn’t mean it is correct, dramatic or right — and as audience members you must demand the author does righteous work by showing you a story instead of merely telling you what has already happened.

Lavonne Mueller is a favorite Playwriting teacher of mine during graduate school at Columbia University.  She showed us the secret of how she always ends her plays:  “End on an action.  Always.  Leave the audience with a final, active, image they will never forget.”  Her example of that demand was the ending of the stage version of “Driving Miss Daisy” where Miss Daisy’s driver slowly and silently feeds her a piece of pie from a fork.  There is no dialogue.  There is only the two of them — and that unforgettable final semiotic of love in the name of duty is burned into our eyes forever.

I have followed Lavonne’s excellent example ever since and my writing across all arcs and schemas have benefited from her wisdom.  

Posted by David Boles

David Boles was born in Nebraska and his MFA is from Columbia University in the City of New York. He is an Author, Lyricist, Playwright, Publisher, Editor, Actor, Designer, Director, Poet, Producer, and Boodle Boy for print, radio, television, film, the web and the live stage. With more than 50 books in print, David continues to write 2MM words a year. He has authored over 25K articles and published more. Read the Prairie Voice Archive at | Buy his books at David Boles Books Writing & Publishing | Earn the world with David Boles University | Get a script doctored at Script Professor | Touch American Sign Language mastery at Hardcore ASL.


  1. Gordon Davidescu December 30, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I feel as though I have to revise my play now and kill a lot of telling!



  2. kathakali.chatterjee December 30, 2009 at 9:58 am

    An action on stage or on screen hits you more than words, with much ease.



  3. That’s a very common mistake, Gordon, and people make it because they see so much of it being performed in live and recorded performance! You create what you’ve seen before — and if you haven’t worked with a non-telling form of showing… then you never know how to identify the mistakes and correct them.



  4. Right. A silent action is more powerful than a whispered sentence.



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