Use Details to Show, Not Tell: ‘The Iguana in the Bathtub’

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Use Details to Show, Not Tell: ‘The Iguana in the Bathtub’

Here is how the piece begins:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

Focus first just on this opening paragraph. Read it slowly and closely, almost as you would a poem, annotating or making a list of what you notice. When you’re finished, answer these questions:

  • What did you notice about the language? What words are surprising? What word or punctuation patterns did you notice, and how do they affect the description over all?

  • What words create an especially strong image? What do they make you picture?

  • The writer, Anne Doten, could have stopped after the first sentence and taken out all the description that follows. With only 800 words to work with, why do you think she kept it all in?

  • Where do you think the essay will go from here? Why might all this “showing” be important?

    Now read the full essay, noting, especially, what words, phrases or lines are richest in terms of showing rather than telling.


Use the first paragraph of “The Iguana in the Bathtub” as a template for your own writing. You might use the piece you began in the “Before You Read” exercise, or come up with a new one.

Begin with a sentence that sets the scene, perhaps borrowing the “When this happened, that happened” structure this writer uses: “When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees.” For instance, “When the coach blew the whistle, the linebacker came straight at me” or “When my mother slammed the door, my sister screamed.”

Then, write two sentences that describe what a person observing the scene would see. To do this, you can directly mimic the structure of the second sentence in “The Iguana” by using the same pattern of adjectives and nouns (“Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws”), or you can do it your own way.

Your goal: to make a reader see — or hear, taste, feel or smell — what is most important and memorable about this scene.


Going to Hooters and Seeing America,” a 2017 essay from On Campus

The restaurant exposes four Pakistani kids to the crass yet oddly family-friendly side of this country.