Showing vs. Telling

This post ties in well with my previous one on description, because once we get a handle on what and why to describe, we need to focus on how. And the answer to that question is rather simple:
More specifically, the right words, in the right order, with the right rhythm, and the right insights, and the right mood/atmosphere, and . . . yeah. That's a lot of things to try to get right, and it can feel a bit daunting. Sometimes it helps to take it one line at a time. I taught a workshop for our local writers' guild where we played around with words and learned how we can take a simple sentence and bring it roaring to life . . . 

The black cat walked down the sunny sidewalk.
The cat twined between the legs of the sidewalk’s pedestrians, its dark fur a sharp contrast to the bright sunshine bathing the city.

We also learned that meaning can be obscured by purple (flowery) prose:
The mellifluous golden orb crested the horizon, a river of yellow light touching the world to waking, a heralding of the warmth of spring that would soon touch the land again.
Which is a fancy way of saying: The sun rose. Spring was coming.

But one of the most important concepts we touched on is one you'll hear about a lot in the writing community. "Showing versus Telling." A little hint? It's all about the showing these days. Stories used to be told. Narrators were the in thing. Bards had a swinging good time of it. The storyteller took center stage and mesmerized their audience with fascinating tales, full of funny or dramatic asides in which the narrator skipped back into the story in a, "Remember me?" fashion.
Yeah. We don't do that anymore. Not often anyway. There are rare exceptions. There are authors who do this so brilliantly we can't help applauding. But for the most part, modern storytelling is all about the invisible narrator. The reader doesn't want to see you. Sorry, I know that might hurt, but it's true. Readers want to slip inside your character's mind like someone sliding into the backseat of a car and come along for the ride. It's your job to make sure they can do exactly that, and showing instead of telling is absolutely key.

She hated peas. ------> THIS IS TELLING.
The peas in the casserole looked like green pustules of evil. Suzy didn’t care if Mom promised her a thousand desserts, no way was she ever going to touch that stuff. ------> THIS IS SHOWING.

Not to say that telling is awful. A certain percentage of your manuscript needs to be telling. You can't make every sentence and paragraph a big production number, after all. Balance is important, and it's something you learn from reading books by people who've figured it out, and from revising your own work till it feels like your eyeballs might start bleeding.
If you don't ever get that feeling, you might not be working hard enough at this. Just saying. ;)
Another trick for getting the balance right is to read your work out loud. If you stumble over the words when you're speaking, chances are your reader will stumble over them when reading. This is a fabulous tool for getting the flow of your narrative right, figuring out where you're showing too much or too little, and catching those small "oops" moments where your fingers or your brain tripped and used the wrong word.
Ultimately though, I think it comes down to depth. At least for me it does. I want a story I can scuba dive into. Snorkeling just doesn't cut it for me anymore. I'll delve into this a little more with my next post, but suffice it to say that your words need to invite the reader inside the story, and inside your character's point of view. Skimming along the surface is . . . well, it's annoying. I've started a lot of books that I've had to put down because it felt like I was pounding against a wall the author built between me and their main character.
Show me your story. Show me your character's world. Show me your character's thoughts. Show me everything it feels right to show.
And then I'll tell you how awesome you are.

1 comment:

  1. Love this! Your examples are excellent! I'm not sure why this is so easy to understand, yet so hard to remember and put into practice sometimes.