There are a lot of writing absolutes floating around the internet. “You must write every day to be a real writer.” (Yeah, no.) “True artists use pen and paper.” (Nope. Nope. Nope.) “Showing is better than telling.” (Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.)
We crave these absolutes. We live in the gray area between Definitely-Yes and Definitely-No, and when revisions have worn us down to splinters, we sometimes find ourselves wanting nothing more than to be told what is right, and what is wrong. But there are few topics more divisive than Showing vs. Telling. What do we show, and what do we tell? How do we show it, and when do we tell it?
I’m super smart (some have even called me awesome), but I don’t have the answers. What I do have are some insights that might help you find some on your own. Because you’re super smart too, as evidenced by your taste in writing advice websites.
Telling: The black cat walked down the sunny sidewalk.
Showing: The cat twined between the legs of the sidewalk’s pedestrians, its dark fur a sharp contrast to the sunshine lighting the city up like a casino billboard.
Now, both of these sentences are decent. There’s nothing wrong with telling your reader about the cat. And there’s nothing wrong with showing your reader either. Your story should have a balance of showing and telling in it. But how do you decide what to show, and what to tell?
The way I look at it is this: Is the cat important? Is noticing the cat a casual observation on the part of my main character, or does it hold some sort of significance? Did my character’s pet cat just die, giving this moment internal resonance? Or is the cat going to play a role in the story, giving this moment a more external meaning?
Showing is a wonderful tool you can use to “zoom in” on the aspects of a scene that hold the most importance for your main character, whether you’re setting the mood through emotional resonance, subtly hinting at events to come, or simply bringing an otherwise dull scene to life.
Telling: She hated peas.
Showing: The peas in the casserole looked like green pustules of evil. Suzy didn’t care if Mom promised her a thousand desserts, no way was she ever going to touch the stuff.
Showing can also be used as an element of voice. Is Suzy’s hatred of peas integral to the story, or to her emotional landscape? Probably not. Does the showing line give us a better sense of Suzy as a character, and help us “hear” her voice? You betcha.
Of course, one danger of showing is that it can so easily be overdone. We have to be careful that we don’t obscure meaning with flowery (purple) prose, zooming in on the words instead of the actual significance of the moment.
The mellifluous golden orb crested the horizon, a river of yellow light touching the world to waking, a heralding of the warmth of spring that would soon touch the land again.
Which is a fancy way of saying: The sun rose. Spring was coming.
Whether we’re zoomed in too far, or not far enough, we run the risk of showing our reader who’s hiding behind the puppet theater’s curtains. For the most part, modern storytelling is all about the invisible narrator. Readers want to believe in the puppets. They want to be enchanted by them. Root for them. Boo at the villain, and cheer on the hero.
The person pulling the strings? They don’t care about so much. Ouch. I know.
If the main character notices things it doesn’t make sense for them to notice (like walking into their bedroom and mentally reciting a long list of descriptions so the reader can see it with them), the reader will see the puppet-master. If the main character doesn’t notice something it does make sense for them to notice (like hey, that boat they climbed on so they could say goodbye to their ex has been moving for an hour now and they are out to sea suddenly!), yep, the reader is definitely going to know who’s pulling the strings.
And they won’t be the least bit surprised when that storm rolls in and strands the two characters on a desert island. Just sayin’.
Showing isn’t just about how you write your sentences, it’s about how you write your story. It’s about what you want your readers to experience with your main characters.
If you need to describe your main character’s bedroom to set the scene, walk into your own bedroom and take note of what you notice. Did your significant other leave a mess again? Did you? Does the fact that only one half of your bed is rumpled remind you that you don’t have a significant other? Do you notice something missing? Is the clock in the hallway ticking stupid loud because you’re late? Is there a funky smell because you’ve been super down lately and laundry is your nemesis?
If your main character needs to be on that boat with their ex, and having them not notice it moving doesn’t make sense, what if they do notice it moving? What if they could have stopped it before it got out to sea, but they didn’t? What if they have to deal with the emotional fallout of realizing that deep down they want to be trapped on a boat with their ex?
What your character notices shows the reader who your character is. It shows them what your character places value in. If your character walks into a room full of people and notices their clothing first, they might come off a little shallow. If they notice someone who’s upset, they might give a more empathetic impression. Zoom in on those moments. Show them to us. Help us get lost in your character’s experiences.
I’ve come to realize that this is one of the dividing lines between meh-it’s-all-right fiction and blows-my-freakin’-mind fiction. Do the descriptions feel organic? Do they pull us into the main character’s point of view to the degree that we feel like we are experiencing the story with them? Do we learn about who the character is through their sensory experiences of their world?
Tell us your story by showing us what matters most.
Kimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.