It is far better to lead your reader to the place you want them to go than to just hand it to them. By consistently telling your reader what is happening, you are insulting their intelligence. You are, in essence, telling them that either you don’t trust them to interpret what you are saying or that they won’t understand what you are trying to say, so you must tell them. You will lose many readers with this approach. Showing is one of the things that makes writing fun; it is part of the creative process.
The Difference Between Telling and Showing
Remember our example of the clichéd panting dog in Developing Believable Characters? When you write, “the dog panted,” you are telling your readers what is happening. When you write, “the dog ran to the front of the house, excited to see his master. His tongue wet the floor with a mixture of exhaustion and anticipation,” you capture the imagination of your reader by showing them the dog is panting.
The Science Behind Showing
It is proven that when two or more people witness the same incident, and you pull each of them aside and ask them to recall what happened, you will get two or more different stories. This is because we all see the world differently. If the incident is a car accident, you will have one who was focused on the red car, the other the yellow car, while yet another did not turn their head until they heard the brakes squeal.
Within those groups it will break down even further. You will have people who will know the make and model of car, be able to describe the driver, and tell you who was at fault. And my, oh my, how the stories can differ. This is because each of us has a conditioned mind that focuses on certain aspects of what is going on around us. These aspects are determined by life experiences, prejudices and biases, as well as things like our attention span.
All of these attributes will play into how your reader will “see” your writing. We all want our readers to see what we saw, to feel what we felt while we bled over the pages. But what we saw and the emotions we felt are our connection to our writing. Your reader will have a similar but different connection. If you talk about growing up in High School, your reader will picture their High School, not yours, even if you describe the colors and smells. This is why it is important to know when to pick your battles.
When Should You Show
There is a time to show your reader, and there is a time to tell your reader. Most of the time, you will want to show your reader what is happening in your story. This is not so much giving details as it is bringing your story to life. This requires you to use the senses. Don’t simply say there was a thunderstorm outside. Describe the sounds, sights, and feelings that the thunderstorm brings. This is especially important when your character has a fear or fascination with storms.
The language you use is crucial to showing. We touched on this a few days ago. Don’t merely type off a quick overused cliché to suit your need of conveying the emotions of your character. Be inventive. BUT do not confuse the use of adverbs for creative writing. Remember, SK said that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Don’t tell your reader that a character said something angrily. Use their actions, facial expressions, and tone of voice to convince your reader that the character is angry. Thus, David was upset at what John said. He yelled angrily, “How dare you!” becomes John’s criticism made David’s ears burn. He clenched his fists, looked deep into John’s eyes, and said, “How dare you.”
Notice two things. First, I did not mention that David was angry. But you can clearly see that he was. The second and more important thing, which you may not have noticed, is that I did not use an exclamation point. Mark Twain has said, “One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke.” Let the reader determine the feeling behind the words. As in our example, the progression of David’s emotion led to an obvious outburst. Let your words guide your reader. It’s much more fun than telling them. That’s not to say never to use inflammatory punctuation. But you don’t need to overwhelm your prose with them.
One thing you will notice when you start to show and not tell is that your sentences will be longer. But that is part of the buildup. However, be cautioned that it can become excessive and overdone. So, find the balance and keep it there.
The general rule is always show your reader — until it’s time to tell.
When Should You Tell
Now comes the part where I contradict myself; it is not always good to show your readers every little detail. If what you are writing does not move the plot, add to the atmosphere, or convey valuable information, then it would be best to be brief and to the point.
Telling is giving your reader a description of something that would generally be considered mundane. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and the moon is white. Average details that are unimportant are to be left out or be kept as brief as possible. You don’t need to go into detail about everything. Let your readers immerse themselves in your book. Too much detail can be overwhelming and boring will have them moving on to another book.
People read to escape reality, the reality that is part of their laid-out lives: Work that is routine, chores that have to be done, and life that is predictable. If you try and give your reader directions to follow when they want to be free to roam, you won’t have your readers for very long.
The only time you should describe something common is when it is not common, AND it relevant to the story. Details can make or break the flow of your story. The reader is continually looking for clues as to where your story is going. If you go on a two-paragraph rant on how the old house across the street looks, it better have something to do with the plot of the story. Such unnecessary details could take the reader down a path that will eventually get them lost.
To show or to tell, that is the question. Most of the time, you should be showing. Showing grabs your reader and keeps them turning the pages, returning for your next entry, or clicking a subscribe button. Showing turns on the theater screen of your reader’s mind, but remember, be gentle because they may have their preconceived movie playing already, your job as a writer is to guide them through the process.
As an example, I have let my wife read Little Reminders of Who I Am as I was writing it. I have described my main character in detail, but to her, his eye color is different, as well as his hair color and length. Her mental picture of him is different than the way I have written him. So will your readers. So be gentle with your adjectives, leave room for interpretation. Let them delve into their own interpretation as they explore the world you have created. It is a shared adventure, and part of what writing successfully is all about.
The Sum of it All
This concludes this nine-part series on Writing Successfully. I hope you have learned something as I have. I write this summary a full two years after the initial publication of this series. I did edit some of the content to adjust what was going on now versus what was happening then. This was because, during the process of writing this series, I was writing my first novel. Since then, The Five Barred Gate has been published. At the time, I did not have a publisher, just the determination to get the book written, the determination to write successfully.
I had a taste of success shortly after this series was published through my Children’s book series, Elissa the Curious Snail. It began with a book I had written at the request of my daughter. Isabella Media, the client I originally wrote this series for, heard about it, asked to see it, and requested to publish it. It gave me the courage to pursue my dream of getting The Five Barred Gate written and published. It was through a book signing event for Elissa that I met a fellow author who introduced me to my Five Barred Gate publisher.
My success all began with this series — applying what I am teaching each of you. I still use these techniques, day in and day out. Mind you, they have changed a bit. I am more of a Contract Freelancer now than UpWork Freelancer. I have developed relationships through UpWork that have advanced beyond the platform. You will get there too, but it has taken me two years to get to where I am. And there have been successes and failures along the way.
As for novels? My second novel, Little Reminders of Who I Am, is scheduled for an August 12, 2020 release, and I am seven chapters into my third novel. God is continuing to bless me with steady Freelance work, I have a contract with one company, and I write steadily for two others. Writing Successfully is part of my daily routine. It began with those silly $2 per article three years ago.
Have I ‘made it?’ No, I don’t think so. Not if there is another word to write. Writing Successfully is a never-ending process. One never ‘makes it,’ that suggests there is an endpoint. I don’t ever think there will be a point where I will rest in considering myself as a successful writer. If I do, I think I would get lazy and forget to employ one of the nine points I have laid out. I hope you never get comfortable either. Keep writing, keep reading, keep getting better at what you do. Writing Successfully is a journey, and when you discover that writing is the passion that drives you, you will enjoy the journey for the rest of your life.
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Jeff S. Bray is a contract writer for Isabella Media, Inc. You can follow him on his website JeffSBrayAuthor.com
Isabella Media, Inc is a Rhode Island-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover unknown authors. We combine unknown authors’ undiscovered potential with Isabella Media Inc’s unique approach to publishing and provide them with the highest quality books and the most inclusive benefits package available. Isabella Media Inc was formed to serve you, the author, as a traditional, mainline royalty publishing company and provide a platform for unknown authors. We listen to your feedback and create a collaborative atmosphere with our authors in the belief that you’ll come back to us with your next book.