Telling versus Showing
We’ve all heard it since we first decided to become an author. You must always show and never tell in your story. Now comes the question.
Just what is telling and what is showing?
Many people will tell you that telling is using “to be” verbs and you must avoid those at all costs. I’ve had others claim anything that’s narrative is telling so you have to stick with dialogue and use vocal or action tags to get any narrative into the book. (Believe me, that is beyond wrong). Still others have no clue about the difference between telling and showing.
It’s really hard to explain telling and showing without examples. You can give lessons on this is telling and this is showing, but many people don’t understand. Or you can be confronted with the author who swears they have to lead the reader by the nose and tell them every single nuance they must feel at a certain point in order for them to understand the story.
First, leading a reader on is being snobbish. You think you’re better than they are and therefore must explain everything. Stop that right now. Readers are intelligent. They can read a description or glance through an action scene and understand every single word. They will have an image in their head they’ve created through your magnificent showing. There is no need to take their hand and say, “Now, this is why all of this has happened. Just so you’re not lost in the next section, I’m going to give you a big clue about what’s coming up.”
Imagine how you’d feel if someone did that to you.
Yeah. Doesn’t feel very nice, does it?
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at another way to show rather than tell a scene. This is one of my biggest issues with editing, seeing information dumped into a section in such a way that I’m bored by the end of the first sentence.
The house sat on a corner near the middle of Small Town, USA. It was a ranch style home, split level. The lawn showed the ravages of the too hot summer, with the grass wilting beneath a blazing sun or burned away completely. The end of the driveway mailbox’s red handle, the one used to indicated to the postperson that a letter was awaiting pickup, hung at a crooked angle. Traversing the walkway from the driveway to the door would be miraculous without breaking your neck, if you were so inclined to attempt stepping on those cracked and shattered paving stones. Once on the porch, a person would have to duck beneath the sagging roof and tiptoe past the warped boards in order to press the doorbell button, which hadn’t worked for years. In exasperation, this individual would be forced to beat on a door that rattled as if it was about to fall in and allow them entrance to a house they’d already decided was going to be far worse than its exterior.
Ready to give up on this book yet? I sure am, and I wrote that drivel. Let’s try that again.
“Damn GPS.” She pounded on the dashboard, hoping she was right and the computerized map was wrong. “This can’t be Lila’s house.”
A glance at the faded address painted on the curb brought out a frustrated sigh.
“Just how bad are things for her?”
Parking in front of a mailbox, Cindy got out of her car and stared in shock at the crooked pole and listing red flag. Part of her mind registered how the grass not only needed mowing, but a few nights of running a sprinkler would really improve its appearance.
“Why didn’t she call me earlier?”
Cindy strode up the cracked driveway and gingerly stepped onto the buckling path to the porch. She kept her gaze on the ground, to be certain she didn’t fall flat on her face. Once her foot was on the steps, she grabbed the rickety railing and stared in horror at the porch’s roof, mere inches above her head.
“Lila had better have a great explanation for this.”
Two steps later, after tripping over a loose plank, Cindy pressed the doorbell. She couldn’t hear a thing and steadily jabbed her finger again and again.
“Oh, come on, Lila.” Cindy beat on the door. “Open up.”
See the difference. Instead of a boring description where the reader is led through the home’s exterior, we have action. We have a person experiencing the moment. Mostly, we have showing the reader what the outside of the house looks like rather than telling them about it.
This type of description will grab a reader’s attention and keep it on the story. There is a rule for authors we all must follow if we want to succeed.
Trust your reader.