Don’t Tell, Show Me

show-and-tellExample #1

He was angry. She could see it. It frightened her.

***

Example #2
His eyes flashed . His dark brows gathered and he seized her by the arm, jerking her from her feet. With a cry she fell. He loomed over her, his jaw clenched so tightly that his lips turned white under the pressure. His long fingers dug into her arm so hard she felt the bones bend under the pressure. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her mouth suddenly dry, her lips parted but no sound save a tiny squeak came out. Like a mouse, she squeaked. She cast about wildly as she struggled against him, looking for some safe place to hide.

There was none.

She wrenched herself free from his grasp and cowered in the corner. She gasped for breath and swallowed the scream that burbled up from deep inside her. With a slow, measured tread, he closed on her.

***

So what is the difference between the two? One is telling. The other is showing.

The purpose of writing fiction is two-fold. You write to tell a story and you write to evoke emotion in your reader. People read fiction for myriad reasons. Some read to escape. Some read to be entertained. Some read to experience vicariously something outside their norm. The stories that stand the test of time manipulate the reader’s emotions and provide some sort of catharsis in the end.

The ancient Greeks coined the term to describe the emotional release found at the resolution of a story. They believed it provided an emotional purification. Well-told stories, whether in a written or visual form, should provide some sort of fist pump reaction when the main character gets their reward or faces their tragedy at the end. There should be an emotional payoff for taking the journey with the character.

To reach this emotional payoff, the writer must engage the reader in the action of the story in such a way that the reader’s heart beats faster when the main character’s does. The reader laughs when the main character does. In short, the reader must slough off his or her self for a while and slip into the incorporeal body of the point of view character. Before the reader can inhabit the mind and body of the point of view character, the writer must first possess the point of view character and travel the story within his or her consciousness.

From there, it’s only a matter of taking dictation.

What does the character see? Describe it in detail. What does the character smell? Describe it in detail. What does the character hear? Describe it in detail. What does the character taste? Describe it in detail. What does the character feel? Describe it in detail. In short, engage as many of the five senses as possible as filtered through the point of view character. This means including physical reactions to the outside stimuli.

Let’s put that another way. When you open a plastic food container that’s been in the back of the refrigerator for months, you may describe it this way:

I reluctantly opened the container. The smell nauseated me. It looked disgusting. I shook my head and threw it away.

Now you’re saying to yourself that I engaged the senses. What of it?

Try this on for size:

I slowly lifted the lid on the container, holding it away from my face. Unfortunately, my arms weren’t long enough to hold the smell at bay. The rancid odor hit my nose with all the force of a Mack truck. Putrid smells of decaying matter and growing mold twisted my stomach in knots. Bile rose in my throat along with that familiar pre-vomit salty taste. My mouth watered. The first spasm hit me and I gagged. I raced for the trash can, replacing the lid as I went, cutting off the fresh assault on my senses. Shaking my head, I tossed the whole container into the trash. It wasn’t worth trying to salvage that tiny scrap of plastic. It could rot for eternity in a landfill for all I cared…as long as I didn’t have to endure that biohazard any more.

***

The difference between the two is that you as the reader merely watched the first event. You as the reader experienced the second event.

You cheated! You used first person. Of course the reader experienced the event!

Okay. Change the personal pronouns from “I” and “my” to “she” and “her” and I guarantee the results will be the same. Some writers write the first draft from a first person limited omniscient point of view and change personal pronouns in subsequent drafts. The reason some choose to do this is to serve as a reminder to internalize the reactions within a scene. Only an android drifts through life without a visceral reaction to the things that happen all around on a daily basis.

***

What techniques do you use to change your telling of a story to showing it?

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Tell, Show Me

  1. Your English teacher friend is going to save this amazing blogpost and use it as a mini lesson on writing. It’s brilliant!

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