Yes, we’ve all heard it. Show, don’t tell. It seems to be the Golden Rule of writing The moment one embarks on a writing career this saying is pounded into our brains. And yes, it is excellent advice to ‘show, don’t tell’. But what exactly does that mean? How does one successfully execute this command?
Let’s start this series by looking at how we’re hobbled at the gate by what we’ve been taught in the real world and why it doesn’t apply to our fiction.
A Lack of Feeling
It all starts in school. In their drive to educate us, teachers emphasize telling. “Tell me why Country Mouse didn’t like visiting City Mouse even though there was all that yummy food on the table,” small children are invited at the close of story time. During our entire formal education, we’re prodded to tell. “Write an essay on why the Battle of Gettysburg was such a turning point in the Civil War.” “I want an oral presentation on the Doppler Effect.” “Turn in a book report on Fahrenheit 481 in two weeks.”
We tell our instructors the facts in a logical, ordered, and objective review of the various subjects. We regurgitate information on command. Very seldom are we encouraged to elicit feeling or emotion from our readers in these school assignments.
The trend continues into adulthood. Jobs require data and hard information in the form of memos and reports that are designed to pass along facts in short bullet bursts. And this is fine. This is what is required to keep business humming along.
But when it comes to fiction, you can’t rely on telling. Telling doesn’t bring tears to your readers’ eyes or laughter from their lips. You can’t captivate anyone by opening a story with bald statements that simply report what’s happening in your story. You can’t give them objective data and expect them to be drawn in. You can’t tell them what to feel. You have to make them experience what the characters are going through, convince them they have a stake in this narrative, and put them through the wringer via showing.
If I was to tell rather than show the beginning of my novel Alien Slave, it might have looked something like this:
Dani Watson, a sex slave in a brothel on the planet Dantovon, was in a swing having sex with an Isetacian midway through her shift. She liked the alien, who she called Reggie because she couldn’t pronounce his real name. She liked him because he sang to her, and the song put her in a restful trance. He wasn’t much to look at in her opinion. He had two rows of eyes that circled his entire head, six limbs that might have been either arms or legs, and his spine and joints weren’t covered by his purple skin. It was best she kept her eyes closed as he had sex with her, she decided, so that’s what she did.
I hated writing that, even as an example. Contrast it with the actual story beginning:
Reggie’s hypnotic trill lulled Dani as he slipped his penis into her. The swing that held her suspended in the air creaked as it moved back and forth in the middle of one of the brothel’s playrooms.
Dani barely felt the thin appendage as she floated in a calm sea of contentment. Sex with the Isetacian, one of her regulars since coming to Dantovon five months ago, was always pleasant. Reggie wasn’t much to look at, but that sweet warbling song that indicated his arousal made up for his lack of physical attractiveness. For all she knew, he was the handsomest man on Isetac. She’d found rating manly charm a futile exercise given the strange bodies and faces of the aliens who visited Dantovon.
Her large brown eyes half-lidded in trance, Dani traced the hard ridge of bone along Reggie’s back. It broke through his gray skin, a purplish-black lumpy crest. The first time she’d seen an Isetacian, she’d thought the creature had been horrifically injured, its skin flayed to expose the skeleton along the spine and joints. When she’d discovered that was the norm for the six-legged race (or six-armed … with Isetacians, it was impossible to tell), she’d been both fascinated and repulsed.
Becoming a sex slave to get off the ruined hulk of Earth had been rife with surprises, good and bad alike.
For now, Dani was content to let Reggie sing to her while he plunged in and out, her long, lanky body suspended in the black straps of the swing. She’d gotten almost halfway through tonight’s shift at the brothel, and this was as good an intermission as she could hope to get. Isetacians didn’t require much from the sex slaves. Stroke their spines and the crowns of their bulbous heads, let them do their thing, and they were happy.
She let herself drift, Reggie’s trill taking her deeper still until her eyes closed, shutting out his face with its toothless mouth. She felt better not looking into the deep pits from which his tiny eyes peered. They circled his head in sets of two.
So what made this work so much better? One key ingredient, which is what the next few tutorials will be all about: viewpoint.
Get in Their Heads
When you write a scene, pick a character. Climb in that character’s head. Stay there and write your story from their point of view.
When you live the story through your characters, they will do most of your work for you. They aren’t being told about the world, they are experiencing it. They feel it. Through them, the story is shown to the reader, not told. And excess details, stuff the characters don’t care about, will not make an appearance to clutter your story with useless drivel.
Think about it. Your character who is walking down the street can’t see what’s around the corner. She can’t form an opinion on what she’s about to see beforehand. When she rounds that corner, she will be hit with impressions as they happen, and they will be vivid and in real time. Because you’re in her head, you won’t write, ‘she walked into a very tall man’. That’s objective. That’s report writing. That’s telling.
Instead you will write, ‘She blew around the corner, her heels beating a rapid click-clack on the sidewalk. Instead of seeing the deli before her and the long line determined to keep her from the reuben sandwich she could already taste, she saw a striped silk tie, shining gray with black paisley designs. It was surrounded by a crisp white shirt, which in turn was bordered by a suit jacket that hadn’t come off any discount rack. She had only a split second to register these things stretched over the broad canvas of a man’s chest before her hurried momentum rammed her face into them.’
Big difference, right? And it’s one your readers are going to feel rather than simply read because they are experiencing it along with the character. That’s showing.