SHOWING VS. TELLING: A MORE DETAILED PERSPECTIVE FOR THE BEGINNER
You don’t have to pursue writing for very long before you hear the most common advice given to novices— “show don’t tell.” It sounds like it’s easy to understand, yet it is the most common mistake new writers make. For some odd reason, most new writers believe they have to tell their readers lots of information for the story to be understood. Nothing can be farther from the truth. They don’t realize what a turnoff it is to readers.
There is an important nuance here: technically, everything you write in a story is telling. You are telling the reader what is happening, what is being said, what the setting is like, what the characters look like, and so on.
Beginners get frustrated, throw up their hands, and say, “Isn’t it all telling?” Yes, it is. “So, what’s the difference?” The difference is in the images your telling creates or doesn’t create in the heads of your readers. Generalities don’t create images, specifics do.
If an author writes, “The warrior woman from the kingdom of Orien jumped to the rescue of the fleeing Lysentia. She defeated the Excubian guards and whisked the Princess away to safety.” What images are created? Nothing! It’s too general. The writing industry calls this telling.
But these “telling” specifics from my book The Blue-Haired Princess: The Birth of the Republic make images spring to life in the readers’ minds and are rightfully referred to as showing:
The ineffectiveness of the pudgy guard fighting with his injured arm enabled the Orien warrior to concentrate her attention on the tall guard. She whipped her blade left and right, high and low, and then caught his blade halfway down the shaft. In three times the speed as it happened to Lysentia, The Orien circled her blade in rapid, three-hundred-sixty-degree arcs while sliding down the tall guard’s sword shaft. Whipping it upward separating it from his hand, she drove her sword point through his heart.
The pudgy guard backed away. Tersius had pulled himself to his feet and limped into the fray again. The Orien spun and feigned a high thrust with her Lamina sword. Tersius swung to parry but found her slender Medius Ensis sword sticking through his mid-section under his chest armor and slumped to his knees.
Feed the Reader Small Bites of your Story
Readers are smart. They want to figure things out on their own. Never let them know more than they need to know in order to turn to the next page. Duhhhhhh! It’s what keeps them turning pages. And don’t “tell” it—”show” it.
Anyway—new writers think they grasp the concept of show don’t tell immediately upon hearing it. But it is one of those concepts that you really can’t learn without making the mistake of telling without showing many times. Then after many failures, the little light bulb turns itself on, and voila—it becomes clear what it is all about.
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