Here at Compulsion Reads, we’ve noticed that many stories that do not earn our endorsement suffer from an over-abundance of telling in place of showing. I wanted to write a blog for those authors and potential customers describing how to “show not tell”, but then I discovered many others had beaten me to it. For a wonderful and comprehensive guide to “show not tell”, please check out this great article from Grammar Girl.
In lieu of describing “show not tell” in detail, I wanted to share my own personal struggles with the concept and why I now understand how important using showing technique is to creating rich, vivid and compelling prose.
I have a confession to make. When I was in college, I dropped out of a class because it was too hard. It wasn’t calculus, Latin IIII or introduction to astrophysics. It was a 100-level creative writing class.
The reason I dropped out was pure frustration. Every beautiful, wonderful, flawless writing exercise I turned in was handed back with the same haunting words scratched in the margin – “Show not tell!”
I hated that phrase. I wanted to run “show not tell” over with a bulldozer. I wanted to leave it in the car on a hot day with the windows up. I wanted to secretly pack it on a spaceship heading for the International Space Station so that I would never, ever have to read it on one of my papers again.
So I decided the teacher didn’t know what he was talking about and quit, but the phrase kept haunting me. My big problem was mirrors.
As a young writer, I found it imperative to describe my characters in detail so that readers would know exactly what they looked like. After a sympathetic English teacher informed me that spending a paragraph listing the physical traits of my heroine, from her fiery red hair to her bright blue toenail polish, slowed the pace of my story to a crawl, I came up with the brilliant idea of always having my characters catch glimpses of themselves in a mirror.
I know, I know, spending a paragraph describing what a character sees of herself in a mirror doesn’t solve the pace problem at all, but I considered this a magical fix. When I got to college, my creative writing teacher saw right through that mirror trick to what I was really doing – telling the story instead of showing it.
It took a long time for the lesson to sink home that “showing” a story means that you allow the reader into your world instead of “telling” it to them. The epiphany finally struck when a participant in one of my critique groups described the concept this way:
“You can spend an hour describing Paris to a friend, or you can buy them a plane ticket and show them the city.”
It was like a veil had been pulled from my eyes. Suddenly I saw how clunky and distant all that telling made my stories – like it was forcefully holding my readers at arms’ length. I also started seeing telling techniques in the writing of my critique partners, almost as it were glowing from the page.
Here’s just a quick example of what I mean.
Example One: Lacy
“Lacy strutted into the room with a fiery attitude and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She admired her flashing green eyes, sculpted arms, flat tummy and long, lean legs. She was less thrilled about her messy red hair and the freckles that powdered her nose.”
Can you see in this example how I am telling you exactly what Lacy looks like, almost as if I were describing her for a sketch artist? I also tell you that she has an attitude so there’s no need for you to discern her personality for yourself.
Here’s an alternative way to introduce Lacy.
Example Two: Lacy
“Lacy pushed the door open with force, not caring that it hit the wall with a loud bang! Brushing a lock of frizzy red hair off her face, she threw herself onto Aunt Myrtle’s plastic-covered couch. As the lunch guests stared in mute shock, Lacy propped her bare feet on the coffee table, crossing her lean legs at the ankles. All eyes riveted to those dirty feet and the blue polish that gleamed on each toenail.”
In this example, I don’t tell you that Lacy has a fiery attitude. You can tell that she has a rebellious spirit by the way she enters the room and tosses aside decorum when she props her feet on the coffee table. I also spent a lot less time giving you a physical description of Lacy. I only told you that she has frizzy red hair and lean legs, but I bet you can start picturing her in your mind.
So what does this all mean? Why am I waxing philosophical on my “show not tell” conversion?
Many new writers rely heavily on telling techniques, which contributes to a bland story where the reader is not fully invested. Adding more showing techniques into your stories will invite readers to bond with your characters, live in your world and be a part of the unfolding plot. “Show not tell” and I still aren’t exactly BFFs, but it’s not my nemesis anymore either. I understand its value, and if I could go back, I would have stuck it out in the creative writing classed and thanked my teacher for trying to make me a better writer.