One of the greatest challenges a writer faces is learning how to well distinguish the cliché ‘Showing’ versus ‘Telling.’
A writer’s job is to paint a picture for the reader using only words. This means the writer must learn to compact his imagery into fewer words retaining the most detail. This is easier said than done.
Adam gave Lucy a red flower. She loved it.
There is nothing wrong with this example. It tells you what you need to know, but its nonspecific. It’s a flat explanation of something with more to give.
Adam reaches out to Lucy, handing her a cherry rose. Her lips curl into a smile and she faintly blushes.
This example is the same exact scene with nothing changed, but the reader gains more through what the writer has decided to expand upon.
The first example tells you Adam gives her a flower and tells you Lucy loved it.
The second example shows you Adam reaching out, cherry red rose in hand, and shows us Lucy smiling and blushing in response. Rather than just knowing he gave her the flower we get to see how he gave her the flower, and rather than being told she loved it, we saw her love. All we did was become more specific at the right moments.
But writers must be aware of how specifying detail can quickly go wrong and be harmful to the work.
If you aren’t subtle, it comes off more like a list or an explanation.
Adam is holding a cherry colored red rose. He reaches out and hands it to Lucy. Lucy takes the red rose, she fails at fighting off a smile and the pink of her cheeks comes to the surface.
Now there’s a bunch of useless crap mixed in with the important information. This brings us back to Tip #1, be sure the words belong there and move the story forward, otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time, mainly your own.
A great way to improve on this skill is to brush up on poetry, the language of metaphor and beautiful imagery. Learning to write poetry will allow these brain muscles to develop.
The goal of showing versus telling is to convey the important story details to the reader in such a fashion that they experience it themselves. Use the five major senses to navigate the characters physical world and body language and dialogue to convey character thoughts and emotions.
Never tell the reader the emotions, though, always show them.
She’s sad – Wrong
She frowned – Right
He’s angry – Wrong
He balls his fists – Right
This gesture made me happy – Wrong
This gesture energized me. A smile jumped on my face without warning – Right
Danny thought Fred was lying – Wrong
Danny shakes his head disapprovingly at Fred’s words – Right
Another note is to remember a character cannot suddenly know or feel anything. They must have valid reason to land on any belief, idea or information and the reader needs to have equal access to this information. The reader must fully understand the character’s motivation at any given moment. In fact, the reader should conclude and expect the character’s reaction or approach to anything correctly. The writer must convince the reader this is the most logical next move for the characters.
Fred suddenly becomes aware Mary was cheating on him – Wrong
Fred sees a belt, not his, laid out on the couch. A button up shirt to match. Mary’s panties and dress shoes by the door to the bedroom. It was much too obvious to Fred what was taking place in the room. – Right
In the correct version of this final example the writer never directly addresses the word cheating, but the message makes it across and the reader connects the same dots the character does to arrive at the same conclusion without any confirmation.
All these things fall under showing rather than telling. Knowing the correct level or detail and when to simply tell the reader what is too unimportant to show instead of tell are skills developed by simply doing, by writing. The more time the writer spends writing, the better they’ll be at telling what words to use to convey a message and when to simply give the reader the answer in the name of pace.