Show, don’t tell

Freeman Tilden, discussing an evocative New York Sun account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “I imagine Mr. Ochs of the Times enjoyed this Irwin tour de force as much as anyone…”

This is a nice line. It illustrates, in show-don’t-tell fashion, one of Tilden’s principles (also illustrated in tell-don’t-show fashion, as with his description of Darwin’s writing in Beagle). Tilden couldn’t know what was in Ochs’s mind upon reading the piece, whether he enjoyed it or would have printed it. But he can imagine, can tell the reader outright that information is unavailable and then present a plausible scenario to fill in a small historical blank. And by painting this imagined picture, with just a few strokes, we can picture Ochs at his breakfast table, or perhaps office, scanning the pages of the competition. Tilden puts us there, without drawing any particular attention his use of the trick he urges interpreters to employ.