Anyone who has ever written a college composition or has submitted a piece of fiction for critique has been told that they must use specific details and “show, don’t tell” what they mean. In an argumentative or literary essay this means supporting one’s points with specific statistics, described examples, or direct quotes from the literary work being written about. This writing “rule” is important so that the intended audience understands specifically what the writer is trying to convey with their words. Unfortunately I think very often because the rule has become so cliche, it is not explained. New writers get left scratching their head in dismay and wondering what they are supposed to do to improve their writing because after all aren’t we storyTELLERS?
To start, for tonight, I am going to talk about what “show, don’t tell” means and how to do it. Tomorrow I will talk about further considerations because there are times when you need to simply “tell.” You cannot break a rule if you do not know the rationale behind the rule and have not thought out when might be a good time to break the rules. And you betcha rules are made to be broken. Even hard and fast, uttered-on-the-wind-like-sacred-mantras rules of writing.
Showing and not telling is a kind of short hand way of saying “don’t sum things up.” If you are writing a piece of fiction, you want whoever is reading your fiction to experience what your characters are feeling, seeing, hearing, etc. You want the readers to be able to immerse themselves in the experience of your story.
For example, one could write the following:
Andy was at the bookstore looking at books. A woman tapped his arm and asked for a book recommendation. He looked at her and told her a few titles.
That’s a pretty unexciting account of Andy at the bookstore. Now I am going to spice it up a bit with some “showing:”
The new Eric Flint novel had just come out, Andy held his copy close to his side. Looking for an Alistair Reynolds’ novel he hadn’t already read, he squatted and tilted his head to the side to read the titles on the spine of the books. He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder and heard a hesitant, “Excuse me. Do you work here?”
Turning his head, Andy admired the shapely legs that stood beside him. His eyes traveled upward to see a smiling face framed by wavy light brown hair. Her eyelashes were dark and long. Andy’s heart pattered as he thought that her rose colored lips were softly sensuous. He blushed noticing that he was wondering what it would be like to kiss those lips and he didn’t even know her name. He stammered, “Um, no, but there is never anyone around. Can I help you find a book?”
The woman’s smiled widened.
Andy realized he was still squatting and his feet were beginning to fall asleep. He stood up and wished that he had worn a shirt other than his Futurama shirt. He asked, “What are you looking for?”
She said, “Maybe I should find a clerk.”
“No, I am sure I can help you. I am in here almost every other day. What are you looking for?”
“I have this class in genre fiction and I have to read a science fiction novel. I never read this stuff. It all seems kind of weird. Do you have any recommendations?”
Weird! Andy’s mind raced. How could she say science fiction was weird? He responded, “There are many excellent novels.” Andy listed a dozen science fiction titles, what they were about, and each novel’s virtues. Then he said, ” By the way, my name is Andy. Would you like to get coffee? I can look at your syllabus and help you with your assignment.”
The woman blushed, offered her hand to shake, and said, “Hi, my name is Rachel. It sounds like you like science fiction. Sorry I said it was weird. I have never really read any. I am not into stuff with aliens. It might help if you looked at my assignment because you know quite a bit about this and I am not sure what I am supposed to read and write my essay about.”
The first version didn’t really get a feel for the exchange between the two characters. It didn’t give details. The second exchange was more descriptive and offered some insights into how Andy was feeling as he began talking to Rachel. The female character in the first version could have been an older woman looking for a book to buy for her grandson. Andy could have been a chef looking at cookbooks. The first version left out a great deal. It was incomplete. It was a summary. Showing and not simply telling means offering readers vivid descriptive prose. So how does one do that?
1. Be Specific About What You Are Writing About Instead of Vague
If you write something like “June thought it was the best day of her life,” that does not really say much to a reader. It is too vague. The reader does not know the whole of the character June’s life nor how to rank the days. If you take the time and sort out the best way to relay why the day was the best of June’s life, or whatever you are writing about, it will be more meaningful. Describing the specific feelings and sensations, giving a context for what you are trying to get across, and filling in the pertinent details will convey what your mean. For example:
June opened the door. The house was very quiet. She could hear the ticking of the clock on the mantel.
She sighed. No one had remembered her birthday all day. It was always like this. The last time anyone had remembered her birthday she had been eight years old and Grandma Mimi had brought her a Madame Alexander doll.
She set her purse on the stand by the door and kicked off her shoes. She would go and change her clothes and maybe microwave a frozen dinner. She turned down the hall and Leslie, Peter, Jonah, Margaret, Mark, and half a dozen other friends yelled, “Surprise!” June blushed and smiled. They began to sing “Happy Birthday!” Susan hugged June’s shoulders and lead her into the dining room. There was a cake with pink roses and curly writing that read “Happy Birthday June!”
June began to cry when she saw the stack of presents on the end of the table. Margaret hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. June stammered, “I thought no one knew it was my birthday.”
Margaret asked, “Oh honey, why are you crying?”
June sniffled and said, “I am crying because I am so overwhelmed and no one has ever done anything like this for me.”
Margaret gave her a squeeze and said, “June you do so much for all of us and we love you. We wanted to make sure that you knew how much we appreciate you.”
2. Use Dialogue
Dialogue is a way to allow your readers to be involved with the characters more directly. If you write “Tony’s mother was angry.” that does not say much. But you can use an exchange of dialogue between the two characters and it will offer more insight into their relationship. Here’s an example:
Tony gently opened the door and peered into the space of the kitchen by the sink. His mother didn’t seem to be in the kitchen waiting up for him. She must have gone to bed. Maybe if he was quiet he could sneak in and she would never know. The sky was just beginning to lighten with the dawn. Tony tip-toed into the room and shut the door. He turned and there sat his mother at the kitchen table. She wore her heavy terry cloth robe. A mug of coffee was gripped between her two hands. “Where have you been? she demanded.
“Well, me and the guys, we went out to the quarry. Joey was playing his stereo in his car and he ran the battery down.”
“That tells me about Joey and that he doesn’t know not to play the stereo in the car all night, but what about you?”
Tony looked at the black and white tiled floor. He shuffled his feet. “Ma, I couldn’t leave him out there.”
“And none of you have mobile phones? You couldn’t call? I have been worried sick. I thought I would get a call from the police telling me you had been drinking and had an accident or something! I don’t know whether to be relieved that you are alive or chew you out for being so inconsiderate to your old mother. Is it too much to ask that you come home at a decent time and let me know where you are?” she yelled.
“Mom, I am twenty-five years old. You gotta know that sometimes I am going to stay out.”
“Not if you are going to live under my roof,” she shouted. “You barely contribute anything to the rent or electricity or anything. You got it good. It’s not too much to ask that you don’t slink in like a stray cat at 5 in the morning.”
The dialogue in the second version illustrates that Tony’s mother was angry and it also gives a glimpse into the nature of the relationship between them.
3. Use Sensory Language
If you write “Aidan was attractive.” that does not convey much. Sensory language can be used to give the reader a more sensory response. For example:
Sally tilted her head up and looked at Aidan. He smiled at her and she felt the room spin. His dark wavy hair was full and sleek, she imagined that it felt soft as silk. They were close enough that the heat that radiated from him, warmed her. He smelled like the woods, earthy and clean. In his brown eyes, years were marked like the rings of a tree. His rich deep voice resonated with something deep inside of her and she barely understood that he had said, “I could take you home.”
4. Just Plain Old Write Descriptively
Sure you can write “Mai Lin held the violin.” It tells some basic information and could be part of a larger story. But you could say more by writing that sentence more descriptively. For example:
With furled brow, Mai Lin’s eyes were closed in relaxed concentration. Her fingers massaged the strings of the violin with rapid movement. Her lips were slightly parted, the violin kissed her beneath her chin, and her bow made the notes sing with a clear resonance. Mai Lin wanted to cry out in her ecstasy, but contained her delight in the music that they made together.
In the second version Mai Lin still held the violin but the statement was not so simple. A sense of the importance of her relationship to the instrument was revealed. Descriptive writing can accomplish this.
For practice, write a singular summative statement such as:
John disliked Charlene’s car.
Amanda felt sad.
Dolly moved the chair.
Or any that you can come up with.
Then take that simple statement and rather than summarizing, flesh it out. Show what you want to illustrate with your words.
Tomorrow evening I will write more about “show, don’t tell.” Specifically when it might not be the best technique to include in your writing.