New? Begin with lesson one.
If you've visited writing boards, Facebook groups, or Twitter chats about writing for any length of time, you've probably come across, "Show don't tell," about a thousand times. It's one of those things most if not all beginning writers struggle with, so it's not surprising the topic comes up so often. It's one of those subtle things, the difference between relating events like a newscaster and immersing your audience in them, but the impact is powerful.
Why is this such an issue? We grow up hearing and reading stories that "tell." A lot of picture books are written in a telling voice because it's often the simplest and shortest way of conveying the idea. This is the same reason newspapers, television and radio newscasts, and various articles tell about events instead of showing them. Because the telling voice is so familiar, beginning writers are drawn to it. It feels natural. It feels normal, but at the same time, it can leave you feeling something is off with your story when compared to others you've read.
What's the difference between showing and telling?
This issues comes down to a combination of point-of-view and word choice. Third person perspectives tend to be the most prone to telling. This is doubly true when you use a narrator. Because the voice sits outside the action, it can be more difficult to tell when you're reporting the events of the story to the reader instead of illustrating them. A story that shows uses more descriptors encompassing all the senses versus few or weak descriptive words.
Show versus tell is best shown by example. Below are two versions of the same "deleted scene" from The Icarus Project.
Once Andrea topped the ladder, Pyrha started climbing. Her gloves were too big and made climbing hard. "If we have to do any sort of fancy maneuvers, I'll be flat out of luck," she grumbled.
It was windy and bright outside the submarine's hatch. Afraid she'd slip and fall, Pyrha kept her eyes on her feet as she climbed down and into their dinghy. She staggered to a seat.
Once Andrea topped the ladder, Pyrha gripped the rungs and began climbing. Doing so wearing gloves felt weird. Droplets splashed onto her visor as the submarine swayed. Pyrha slipped sideways a few millimeters causing her heart to stutter. “If we have to do any sort of fancy maneuvers, I’ll be flat out of luck,” she grumbled.
The wind buffeted her as she exited the submarine, and Pyrha squinted against the light. Anxious to keep her footing, she didn’t dare to look up as she climbed free of the hatch and down the other side to join the others in a small, inflatable dinghy. The neon yellow monstrosity swayed under her feet, and Pyrha’s stomach lurched. She took a deep breath, let go of the ladder, and wobbled to the last seat available.
How do I make showing easier?
There are several things you need to keep in mind during the writing process from start to finish. The two most important are the story itself and your reader's experience. Putting yourself in your reader's shoes can make showing versus telling a lot easier. You want your reader to feel immersed in the story not detached from it. If you find you can't do this while drafting, give it a try during the editing phase.
In the case of using a specific character's point-of-view, showing becomes easier. You can place yourself inside the character's head while writing and use their senses to show what's going on. As in the passages above, instead of just stating Pyrha's gloves were too big, being inside her head allowed me to show this fact by how they felt on her hands.
However, using character points-of-view isn't necessary to showing. The same can be handled in a narrator's point-of-view through word choice. To make things easiest, you can place yourself inside the scene as an observer. You can think of your narrator as a documentarian following the main character. They observe everything, but they stay out of events and can only experience the subject's perspective through their words and actions.
Showing versus telling is one of the more nebulous things about writing. It's grounded in the art of the craft rather than the technicals such as our next topic. Chances are we will touch on this subject again as we go forward.
Continue on to active versus passive voice.
A. B. England is a small business owner, home-schooling mom, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves fantasy, mythology, and all flavors of science fiction.
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