On Showing, not Telling… and the Dirty Little Secret Your English Teacher Didn’t Bother Sharing

Teachers, friends, and strangers all tell writers to show the reader the story they are telling (I know, funny, right?). “You shouldn’t tell your story!” You remember Mrs. Williams telling you while she points aggressive and unnaturally erect finger in your face.

What exactly does showing mean? It doesn’t exactly mean showing in the literal sense. It means using all the senses to create an atmosphere that the reader can experience. The author should use sight, sounds, smells, tastes, feels(?), and other things to create that atmosphere. Doing this will bring the reader closer to the story, make the things they imagine more vivid, and thus the story more interesting.

Telling is simply telling the reader something happened or something exists. See the difference:

Albert heard a noise, and he opened the door. He looked into the hallway. He walked into the hallway. The door slammed shut. He was scared because he heard something coming. He couldn’t get back into the room. It sucked.

Vs.

Albert heard something snarl in the hallway just outside his bedroom. Against his better judgment, he turned the cold brass knob, and tugged slowly on the door. The hinges protested with a slight cry as if warning him to close the door, lock it, and return to his bed to hide safely under the warm coverlet. He ignored them, of course, and stepped into the inky blackness of the hallway. A subtle breathing sound emanated from the black shadows that cobwebbed through the corridor, and then the door slammed shut.

He turned toward the door and grabbed the handle. His heart galloped in his chest and thumped hard in his ears as he twisted the stubborn knob. His skin tightened with goose flesh. Nails ran along the floor, ticking and scraping closer and closer. He pulled. He yanked. Nothing.

Do you see the difference? One is far more engaging than the other. You might not use all senses all the time, but you should use some of the senses all the time. Putting the reader in that moment makes it real, and that reality check for the reader will make the incredible things that happen more believable. (Re: Suspension of disbelief)

What else do you see in that second part? If you guess that I used some telling, then you’re correct. Teachers don’t tell you this, but you need to use both in your story. You’ll use it for urgency, emphasis, or any number of other reasons, but you should use it nevertheless. When? Well, I suppose that depends on what’s going on in the story. In slow parts of the book, you have the time to explore. When shit’s hitting the fan, though, fragments and short “telly” sentences are your best friends. It increases the pace, yanks the reader by the shirt, and says, “Let go!”

Do you avoid telling at all costs? Do you tell and show? What’s your strategy? Comment below or find me on Facebook and Twitter to let me know how you do it!

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