I think monkeys might actually fly from my butt the next time I hear someone tell me, “You need to do more showing and less telling”.
As avid readers of speculative fiction, young adult, period romance, science fiction, non-fiction, dystopian, etc., we expect to pick up a story and be magically whisked away into some alternate state of consciousness, a place where we can escape the humdrum of everyday life and be someone and someplace else for a while. But when we pick up a book and never forget the fact that we’re lying in our bed, sitting in our chair, or maybe soaking in the tub, our expectation has not been met. It’s never very obvious to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong. We just know that, for some reason, we weren’t able to suspend our disbelief and get into the story.
As critics and reviewers, it’s easy to replicate that morsel of overused advice and simply tell the writer he’s “telling, not showing”. It’s even worse for the poor writer, who’s often left scratching his head and wondering what you meant, exactly. More puzzling is what he can possibly do with that vague feedback to improve his writing. Just how do you “show” rather than “tell”?
Here’s a classic example. Think back to grade school when it was your turn to bring in your favorite teddy bear for “show and tell”. (Aha! This damn term has been ingrained in our heads since the first time we began learning to read and write!) You could have shown up to class on your day with absolutely nothing. You could have stood up in front of your teacher and all your friends and “told” them something like this:
“My favorite toy is my teddy bear. He’s brown and fluffy. He has black eyes and a red scarf around his neck. He’s my best friend.”
If, however, you actually brought the cherished ursine into the classroom that morning, you could have “shown” your friends something like this:
“I’d like you all to meet Maximilian Scruffy Paws. Max and I go way back. My dad got him for me when I was four. He won Max at the county fair when he hooked four rings over some milk bottles. I call him Scruffy Paws because, as you can see, the pads on his claws are starting to wear off from all the adventures we’ve had. One time when it was really cold out, Max and I built an igloo in the snow by the street in front of our house. I put this scarf on him so he wouldn’t get cold, but then forgot him outside when Mom called me in for dinner. The plow truck came by and ran over our igloo and Max got squashed inside. When we finally dug him out, the scarf was smashed into his neck and we couldn’t get it out without tearing him. That’s why Max is a little lopsided. But I don’t mind. I love him anyway.”
Is there a difference?
Telling a writer that he’s “telling, not showing” has become a vague and morbidly overused cliche. I prefer to think of it rather as “sharing your vision with the reader”. As writers (I’d call us “story tellers”, but that would imply that our job is to “tell” a story rather than to “show” one) we already have a pretty good picture in our heads of the story we’re trying to convey. True, it might only be bits and pieces at a time - a location, a physical characteristic, a curious quirk of one of our characters, a cool building or piece of equipment, maybe even a clever quotation that someone might often repeat. But something in our heads prompted us to start writing a story and not always, but usually, we can imagine what it looks like in fairly vivid detail.
The problem is that, because we already know exactly what it looks like/sounds like/feels like/smells like/tastes like, we often neglect to inform our reader what he should be seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/tasting. Combine this with our determined drive to simply finish the first draft and our poor reader plods along feeling completely disconnected from our story.
So what can we do about our writing to help our readers experience the immersion of the story worlds we create? First, slow down! What’s the big rush anyhow? I remember starting work on my first story more than six years ago. It’s still not even close to being done. While I work on it, I often find myself thinking, “I need to just hurry up and get this one done so I can move on with revising (or starting another story).” I’m so consumed with finishing it that I completely overlook the enthusiastic experience and pure enjoyment of creating it. And if I slow down and take the time to get it right the first time, that’s less time I’ll need to spend later in revisions. Not to mention that the first or second draft will be that much more enjoyable for someone to critique. As it goes with life, so it should go with writing - the reward is not in the destination, but in the experience of the journey.
Here’s another great way to share your world with your readers: involve all five senses in your exposition and dialogue. Sometimes I feel that reading through my draft manuscripts is akin to suffering slow, two-dimensional, optical paralysis; there’s simply nothing there but black words on white pages. Where’s the color, the vibrancy, the life? Take that vision you have in your head for your current scene and paint it onto the pages for your readers. What does the air smell like? How does the surface reflect or refract sun or artificial light? How does her soft skin feel against his calloused hands? What kind of texture does the food produce on my tongue? Don’t hand me an apple and tell me it’s red and sweet. Make me bite into it, roll the juicy pulp around the inside of my mouth, maybe gag a little on a piece of stiff peel that lodged itself in the back of my throat on the way down. You get the idea.
You’re probably great friends by now with all the characters in your story. After all, you’ve been spending a lot of time following them around, making detailed mental observations and taking copious notes. You know who they are, what they like to do, where they like to hang out. We spend so much time with our characters and their locations that we get to know them very well. But your reader doesn’t know anything about them. It’s up to you to introduce them. Take the time from the very beginning to set the scene, paint the stage, and share with your reader the vision that you imagine in your creative mind. Your writing will be much more enjoyable for it. What’s more, the reading will be much more immersive, which is what readers really want and expect from a good story.