If there is one bedrock principle of good storytelling, it’s this: “Show. Don’t tell.” That is, the most vivid way to convey something is to show it, not tell it.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, yes . . . and no.
The goal is to create an emotional reaction in the reader, but the path to that end can be murky. So let me shed some light with a few examples.
Look at the difference between these two descriptions of a man’s feelings about his young daughter.
#1 He loved his little girl and missed her terribly.
This is telling. You understand the information, but you don’t see anything happen, so you don’t feel it.
#2 He took a paper out of his pocket. A crayoned drawing of the dog, Dingo, all brown loops. He brushed his finger over the tiny hole where the paper had been folded so many times, it had worn through. He’d looked at it every night for three years.
This is showing. You know this man’s deep feeling because you see a manifestation of it, so you feel it.
Action is the Key
Showing is often best done by depicting a person in action, however brief the action is. Compare these two descriptions:
#1. She was generous and kind.
You get the information, but you don’t feel it.
#2. She stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for her usual: two coffees double-double, and two chocolate donuts. As she passed the homeless guy beside the parking lot she handed him his morning coffee and donut, then carried on to work.
You get the information (that she’s generous and kind) and you feel it, because you see the character in action.
The “As If” Technique
Here’s a tip, a highly effective technique. It’s about using the phrase “as if”. Compare these two descriptions.
#1. She had an unconscious sexuality that was unsettling.
We get it, but it’s abstract.
#2 Now this, from Giles Blunt’s novel Forty Words for Sorrow: “Delorme had a disturbing tendency to hold your gaze just a little too long. It was as if she’d slipped her hand inside your shirt.”
Gives you a sweet shiver, doesn’t it?
The “as if” technique works like the ploy of a courtroom lawyer asking the witness, “When did you stop beating your wife?” The furious witness may deny ever beating his wife, but once the lawyer has conjured that image it’s etched in the listener’s mind.
As writers, we can create the same powerful effect with “as if”.
Exception to the Rule
Although showing is always more effective than telling, all writing is elliptical – that is, we have to leave some things out. Every detail cannot be shown. If you set out to describe just the room you write in, with every single detail, it could take dozens of pages. So a writer must constantly choose what to omit.
I call it literary triage.
For example, you might write several pages of a tense, two-character scene that bristles with dialogue and builds to a climax, showing everything that happens between those characters during five minutes – then follow it with a single paragraph that sums up what happens to them over the next five years. It’s because those five minutes changed their lives more profoundly than the five following years.
It’s all about making strategic choices. Choose what’s essential to show, and what can just be told. Showing should give your writing vitality, make it feel alive. If, instead, it slows the flow, deadens the pace, then it’s better to use a passage of “tell” narration to sum up what happens.
Want more to inspire you? You’ll find lots in my book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy.