Recently I have been researching articles that detail the thoughts of other authors on the subject of “Show Vs. Tell”. As many writers and publishers out there know, this subject is full of controversy and is misunderstood more often than not. Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post broaching the subject that is published on my personal blog, “The Pen and Parchment”. In that post, I admitted to having an epiphany concerning how “showing” in writing is a lot like painting in art: one must captivate the reader through action and detail, rather than telling the reader how everything plays out. To “show” in a story, is to write so that readers are watching the action of the story play out as if it were a movie; the reader is pulled along on an adventure and draws conclusions at the same time as the characters. To “tell” is to give away the answers to questions and the conclusions to problems before the character has gotten that far; you “tell” the reader all that is happening, why, and how it plays out (or will play out) in the end, before the story has gotten that far.
It’s still a confusing bit of information though, and it’s one of the toughest obstacles that writers (both new and experienced) face. But the other day, as I was perusing articles on the subject, I came upon a blog post that shed some knew light on the problem. This person did not so much try to describe and explain what showing was in comparison to telling. Rather, he contemplated the emotional link that “Showing” can induce within Creative Writing.
In my (never-too) humble opinion, fiction is all about forging an emotional link between the author and the reader. While many a great piece of fiction functions on a high intellectual level, the good stuff almost always works, first and foremost, viscerally. We are drawn into it because something there speaks to our deeper selves, gets inside us and takes hold. Indeed, fiction always has to sneak past the barriers our intellects erect, because (by virtue of the label “fiction”) we know that the stories we’re being told are fabrications. We call this feat of mental gymnastics “willing suspension of disbelief,” and good writers tend to help us accomplish it in two ways: by making their fiction as plausible as possible, and even more significantly, by blazing through the brain and going for the gut. […] Basically, the distinction is this: telling merely catalogs actions and emotions, showing creates images in a reader’s imagination. It’s the difference between the laundry list and the laundry.
(Michael Burns on “Show Vs. Tell”)
Something about this article “clicked” with me. There aren’t very many writers that think of showing vs. telling in this manner, but Mr. Burns is absolutely right. I’ve noticed such connections within my own writing — chapters that didn’t hold my attention at all, and others that I felt deeply connected to in a visual, almost physical way — but I could never put my finger on the reasons why these excerpts worked or didn’t. Now, I think I understand. Or at least, I understand better.
With the thought in mind that showing is an emotional connection between a reader and the context of the words, I can now see that the parts of my earliest stories I struggled most to connect with were very telling. I would list actions, explain things ahead, catalog emotions and feelings. None of this helped me to connect to my characters or the world I was attempting to build.
Later in my writing life, my ability to show rather than tell improved, even though I didn’t fully understand why or how. I suddenly realized that I could connect with my characters and worlds much better than before. I could submerge myself in them to an almost believable degree. They were becoming alive as I wrote. This was something that I had experienced while reading my favorite books, but not something I had accomplished yet with my writing… and so I grew excited.
But what had changed? What made the difference? Up until I read Mr. Burn’s article, I honestly believed that the improvement in my writing was due mostly to the fact that I had improved upon my vocabulary and my descriptions, and that I wrote constantly. And yes, this did help, but the real question is why did it help?
As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, I believe that the difference between showing and telling can be confusing to writers, mostly because they learn about the subject from other writers who may themselves not fully understand it. I certainly don’t claim to understand it all, but I think I am finally starting to see the connection. Literally.
Showing is all about connection. Connecting your reader to your character, and your character to your world. To do this you need more than just words… you need to create an emotional bond between reader, character, and world.
It’s the difference between telling your friend that you kissed a boy, and having your friend watch you kiss that boy. It’s the difference between saying that the rotten egg smelled like sulfur, and actually smelling the sulfur of the rotten egg. It’s the difference between saying that snow is soft and fluffy, and actually feeling the soft and fluffy snow.
Basically, telling is impersonal… it is a statement about an experience, but not the experience itself.
Showing is the experience. All of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not just hearing about what happened second hand, but actually being there as it happened. That’s what you want your reader to feel as they are reading your book. That’s what you are aiming for.
Here are two examples. The first is an example of telling:
Jason stood in his doorway. The room was hotter than he liked, so he asked his wife to turn down the heat. She didn’t reply and he thought that maybe she was still mad at him, so he decided to turn it down himself. He walked into the hall and to the top of the stairs, where he saw smoke at the bottom, and smelled something funny. It smelled like propane and burning wood. The house was on fire. Jason started to panic and hurried down the stairs, looking frantically for his wife Sonya.
This example is impersonal. It is simply a series statements, nothing more; someone is telling someone else about a man that smelled fire in a house and started looking for his wife. We, as readers, are not with this character experiencing the fire. We are simply learning about it second hand. We are not transported into the text to stand with Jason, smelling fire or trying to figure out what the strange smell is. We do not wonder at the strange heat, and we do not feel scared for Jason as he starts looking for his wife. We are simply being told what already happened. There is no emotional connection… there is no bond with the character or the world or the story in itself. This is simply a report.
Now, let’s try and rewrite this in a “showing” way.
Jason stood at the entrance to his room. The door stood open a crack and light spilled in from the hallway. Heat too. Why was everything so warm? He’d turned the thermostat down, but maybe Sonya had turned it up again.
“Sonya, turn the heat down! I can barely breath up here.”
He waited the span of fives breaths and then called again, louder this time. Angrier. “Sonya! Are you trying to burn me out? Turn the thermostat down! I’m dying.”
But Sonya never replied.
Jason snorted irritation. Typical woman, not to answer him. She thought the silent treatment could fix everything. She was probably still stewing about their argument over dinner. This was her way to get back at him.
Well, he wouldn’t apologize. Not for that, not ever. That money was as much his as it was hers, and she knew it!
Flinging the door open, he stomped out into the hall. Fine then! He’d turn it down himself. Show her how little he cared for her tantrums. She couldn’t burn him out of his own house!
Stomping down the hall, he came to the top of the stairs and paused, listening. Something was wrong… He couldn’t hear her. If he was still in, he would still hear her, wouldn’t he? Especially if she was angry. She’d be banging in the kitchen, or stomping through the living room or… something. He’d never heard the house so quiet, not since the first day they moved in, and Sonya was especially noisy when she was was mad at him. She made it a point to be.
He looked down the stairwell. The steps from the bottom down were invisible beneath a curtain of swirling grey smog, and a sharp, bitter smell drifted to his nostrils. It smelled almost like burning hot-dogs.
Jason took the steps two at a time, coughing and sputtering as he entered the smog. But not smog; this was smoke! Dark thick smoke, smelling of wood and propane. Not hot-dogs. And everything was hotter now. The air tasted dry and thick, and stuck in his lungs like tar. He couldn’t see two paces in front of him.
The house was on fire!
“Sonya!” Panic played with Jason’s heart like a yo-yo. Where was she? What had happened? Was she alright? Never mind their stupid fight! He couldn’t be angry at her; he’d forgotten how. If he found her — if she was alright — he would never let her out of his sight again.
Quickly he dropped to the floor, crawling on his hands and knees through the rooms. That’s what they said to do in fire safety classes, right? Smoke rose towards the ceiling so fresh air would settle near the floor. He hoped that was right, but coughed as he drew in a breath of bitter grey swirls. He had to find her!
This example is a bit long and rather rough, but it get’s the point across. In this example, the reader stands with Jason at the door, feeling angry at his wife, Sonya, for the fight they had earlier. They follow Jason into the hallway. They wonder to themselves why everything is so warm, and remember with him that he had turned the thermostat down. They follow Jason to the top of the stairs, see the grey swirling curtain at the bottom, walk into the smog and realize that it is actually smoke. They smell the burning wood and propane, feel smothered by the heat, and then panic as they start to search for Sonya.
It all has to do with emotion and experience. I mean, yes, this last excerpt was more detailed than the earlier version, but notice how the story seemed to be coming from Jason’s head? This excerpt didn’t read like a report, and it didn’t feel like one. The reader was right there with Jason in the burning house, panicking over the disappearance of his wife and trying to find her through the swirling smoke.
Perhaps this is the reason that so many writers choose to write in 1rst person. It’s easier to show an experience through someone’s eyes if you are actually the person experiencing it. Many writers choose 1rst person POV because it gives them the opportunity to slip into their character’s persona and pretend that they are actually living their character’s life. It’s much harder to do this in 3rd person POV, which is what I used in the excerpt above. In 3rd person, the writer isn’t actually a character in the story at all. They write the story as if they are watching a movie of the events and know what the character is thinking and feeling at the time.
Because the 3rd person style of writing often doesn’t seem as personal as the 1rst person style, a lot of new writers approach their stories as if they are simply giving a report to someone else about what happened. But as we’ve now learned, cut and dried reports don’t need emotions or thoughts or feelings of any type. They are a recitation and nothing more.
But a real story — a novel-worthy story — needs to be much more than a recitation. It needs to grip a reader by their throats and pull them to the edge of their seats so that they can’t wait to find out what happens next. The sad parts need to bring tears to their eyes and the happy parts need to make them smile and laugh for joy. The scary parts need to terrify them. And the only way to accomplish this is through emotion. Make the reader see it; feel it; live it. Make it an experience.
Because isn’t that what makes a book truly memorable? It’s almost never just about how the words sound on paper when they are read aloud, or whether or not the writer has a large vocabulary and a way with descriptions (though that helps). Rather, the truly memorable books are the ones that leave the reader feeling like they actually just lived through something amazing (good or bad). A memorable book is one that changes the reader, so that after they finally finish the last page and close the cover, they pause to say to themselves, “Now that was a good story.”