Friday, June 01, 2007

Handbook for How to "Show" Rather Than "Tell" in Writing

This post ploinked into existence thanks to my attempts to give a critique on Elektra's Crapometer (a site whose (other) critters consistently hand out some of the most intelligent and helpful critiques I've seen anywhere on the internet.)

And let's face it: my love of yabbering as if I know what I'm talking about played a role too.

I hope this is helpful to you. Feel free to leave constructive criticism on the ideas discussed.

Goal 1: Notice how many times you use the "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction.

Examples of "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction:
"He was wet."
"Things weren't going as planned."
"The cat was half-starved."

The "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction is the most common method of "telling". You, the author, are stating a fact, and the reader's imagination doesn't need to engage for them to understand you. That means you've failed to draw the reader into your story.

For the reader, telling is dull. Telling will never make them care about what's happening in the story. I'll explain why in a moment.

However, telling saves a lot time. You can get your detective out of the house and over to the crime scene in a single sentence. If you showed that sequence of events, by painting his actions vividly in words, then it might take several paragraphs to accomplish the same thing.

Be aware of when you're telling, and do it sparingly. It's far better to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, rather than lose the reader's interest entirely because the story is dull. Telling is a useful writing tool, but don't use it as a crutch.

Goal 2: Strive to make the reader's imagination engage.

You want the reader's imagination engaged. As soon as it is, you've succeeded in pulling the reader in - the story comes to life inside their head and your writing has thus risen above simply being words that are comprehended.

To engage the imagination, paint the scene vividly with your words. You want the reader to see images, hear sounds, smell smells, and feel sensations. You want them to empathise deeply with the POV character because their mind is so tightly coupled to what the character is experiencing. This is called "showing".

The way to do this is to precisely and accurately describe sensations that the POV character experiences (including those due to emotion), rather than merely stating what is true for the character.

Example 1:
Telling: "He could smell Marcia's cloying perfume.
Showing: "Marcia's perfume crawled up his nose and clung to the back of his throat."

In the first case, the word "cloying" is an accurate term, but it's also the writer telling the reader what the perfume is like. It's far more powerful if you describe the sensation of breathing perfume so perfectly that the reader decides for themself, based on the description, that the perfume is cloying.

In the second case, the focus is on the sensation. The writer lets the description do the work of letting the reader know what the perfume is like.

One caveat: it's important that the description used gives the reader a sense of familiarity - they should be (unconsciously) thinking, "Yes, breathing in perfume feels exactly like that."

If your words describe a sensation that isn't familiar to the reader (e.g. "Marcia's perfume made the cavities of his nose try to expand"), the logic centres of the reader's brain become engaged. The reader thinks, quite consciously, "What does that mean?"

And that's a problem. We tend to use only one part of our brains at a time. When a burst of problem-solving occurs in a reader's brain, their imagination disengages to make way for that logic. This means that if your reader has to stop and puzzle something out, the story just died for them. They have been "kicked out" of the narrative - or more accurately, the story has been kicked out of the reader's imagination by their need to temporarily think a different way.

Goal 3: Work hard to avoid phrases that are commonly used, as the reader's mind is trained by familiarity to gloss over them.

Example 2:
Telling: "The sunlight reflected off the river and dazzled her."
Showing: "Sunlight smashed against the river's surface and its shrapnel lanced into her eyes."

Slightly purple, that second one. Sorry.

The verb "smashed" is a more unusual choice for talking about sunlight on water than "reflected" is. "[L]anced" is also more unusual than "dazzled".

The brain tends to slide past words that are used in a very typical way, because no imagination is required to understand what the writer meant. Unusual turns of phrase are more likely to make the imagination engage, simply because the brain has to work a bit harder to "see" the image. It's okay if the imagination goes into puzzle-solving mode, as long as the logical mind does not.

Obviously you can go too far with being unusual; your meaning has to be perfectly clear. You can say anything, provided it succeeds in making the reader imagine what you mean, rather than think about what you mean.

So What's Wrong With "Telling", Anyway?

The simple answer is that when we human beings are logical, there's no emotion attached to that process. And what makes a novel seem great to most people? The novel's ability to make us laugh, cry, and prickle with horror. The novel's ability to make us feel.

We want that emotional roller-coaster - an intellectually stimulating article can enliven us, but it has to be utterly brilliant (or obviously flawed) to get a stronger emotional response than that. We demand that novels grab us by the heart; it's what makes fiction potent.

When you "show", you engage the reader's imagination, which forces them into empathy - into feeling what the POV character feels.

When you "tell", you only communicate information to your reader. It's fast, but leaves the reader only passively involved in the story.

To make the reader believe your writing has power, you must make them feel something. That is the only reason why showing is preferable to telling.

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