Well, the time has come to look at the world-building aspect of story construction. Without a world – even a modern setting and fictionalising of a real place – your story cannot be constructed at all. Just as your story requires a plot, and the plot requires three-dimensional characters, the story will not stand unless you have a sense of where they are.
And this brings us to a major problem for a lot of authors.
The info-dump is a trap all authors will fall into at some stage of the process. You have so much information on your characters, your world and your concepts that you feel the need to tell the reader everything, all at once.
Does this only apply to Fantasy authors who fancy themselves as the next Tolkein, itemizing every race, creed, species and geographical inch for the first fifteen pages without ever getting to the action?
What about SciFi/Dystopian authors who feel the need to explain every formula, every equation, and every way in which their post-apocalyptic setting is different to now without even telling us their protagonist’s name?
And don’t think the rest of you can get away with describing your characters in minute detail over the course of several paragraphs, ripping us out of the story to ‘tell’ not ‘show’… And no, we don’t care what colour the curtains are, or how many grey feathers are in the wing of the African parrot climbing his way up the outside of the large, plastic birdcage in the corner that Great-Aunt Josie bought for her sister for her fiftieth birthday.
Yeah, you know what I mean…
So – here to talk about Showing not (always) Telling is Maya Starling
, a writer who is dedicated to improving her craft. Maya is relatively new to writing, and English is not even her first language, but her talents have been recognised by the online community of wattpad. She was peer-voted the winner of the Non-Teen Fiction ‘On the Rise’ category in the 2012 Watty Awards
, and her Dragon series
has quite rightly attracted a number of fans.
Dragon’s Treasure is the first novel and Dragon’s Prize is the sequel; Dragon’s Queen and Dragon’s Quest are the third and fourth in the series, and coming soon.
Show, Don’t (Only) Tell
When I first started writing, I knew nothing about it. Since I write in a language that is not my native, and since I come from a very small country, creative writing classes were not something at my disposal, whether in English or my native language. I did read a lot, and at that point, it was a best way to learn for me. But not all the minutiae of writing can be grasped when you get pulled into the story and distracted by the characters. I barely knew how to properly paragraph my story, but I had to start somewhere.
So start I did. The first story I wrote was Dragon’s Treasure, I guess I did well since it won Watty Awards 2012, but now, when I look back, I see so many things that need to be fixed. I learned that the best way to learn how to write is to actually do the writing, to just practice and explore.
Once I started writing, I also started researching writing terms, styles, formats, rules, etc. But the biggest thing I learned was the ever famous Show, Don’t Tell, one of the most important rules to follow when writing. It also seems to be the most difficult thing to grasp for beginner writers, and for me it changed my whole out view on writing.
What Does ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Mean?
Show, don’t Tell is a technique often employed by writers to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to experience the author’s ideas by interpreting significant, well-chosen details in the text. (Wikipedia: Show, Don’t Tell – 12.08.2013)
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” — Ernest Hemingway
“Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” —James Scott Bell
“Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out … when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.” — Francine Prose
But, What Does It Really Mean?
Before explaining what the term means and demonstrating its use in writing, the distinction between Showand Tell needs to be made first.
Telling means stating the facts using simple exposition: Lilith was furious.
Showing means using engaging and evocative description: “He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.
Why is Showingbetter? Well, as you can see, it helps us envision the scene, and it plays out in our minds as if were watching it happen before our eyes, giving it a cinematic quality.
Showing forces the reader to become involved in the story, it allows them to see, feel, hear and experience what the character is experiencing. Of course, a proper balance between Showing and Telling needs to be implemented, which will, in the end, make the writing richer and more effective.
You need to be careful not to overdo the Showing though. When the goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage Telling does the job quite well.
Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. A story that is filled with detailed descriptions could become tiresome, so just as you mix long sentences with short sentences to create variety and keep your readers interested, it’s often wise to mix sections that show with sections that tell to keep your story moving.
For example, if the weather is secondary information to the story, it’s okay to say “It was snowing.” But if you use it to set the mood or it will influence your characters and plot, and you want to give it more attention, then you might want to show it.
How To Do It
1. Use dialogue
Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader that a character is angry and annoyed, or describing it, let the reader hear it for themselves.
“Delilah, you’re daydreaming again!” Lilith snapped at her daughter.
As you can see, dialogue shows the reader a lot about the character, emotion and mood.
2. Use sensory language
In order to help the reader fully immerse themselves into your story, they need to not only see, but taste, smell, and touch the world around them.
Close your eyes and enter your scene.
What sounds do you hear? What smells are in the air? Is it hot or cold? Can you feel the sun on your face or the grass beneath your feet? What expression does the character have on his/her face?
Adding such specifics will transport the reader to the scene you have envisioned in your mind.
3. Be descriptive
Remember the earlier example of describing an angry character:
“He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.
Being descriptive takes us back to the elementary use of adjective and adverbs (no, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs, unless you’re a weak writer and don’t know how to use them, but that’s a whole new topic for discussion). Describing is more than just inserting descriptive words though; it’s about choosing the right words and using them the right way, and you don’t have to use only literal descriptions, because metaphors and similes can show your ideas as well. Also, be specific and not vague, especially when describing how your character feels.
Here’s an example of using descriptions by Mignon Fogarty:
“Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man.”
That gets the information across, but it’s boring. It simply tells the reader the basics about Mr. Bobweave.
Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Bobweave in the reader’s mind:
“Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection, he pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.”
Umm, I Guess I Get It
If you’re still not sure how to distinguish whether you’re Telling instead of Showing, you can spot Telling by looking for simple declarative sentences which often have the verb “is/was”, and Showing is using behavior (action, speech, thoughts) to illustrate what the character is feeling/doing.
Telling is dispensing information.
Showing is evoking experience.
In the end, you don’t want to report to the reader what is going on, but you want them to experience the story’s reality, and that’s what Show, Don’t Tell is all about.