The rule is drilled into all of us. We’re not to tell, we’re to show. I was discussing writing rules with MMJaye the other day, and I thought our conversation would interest the rest of you as well.
As anyone who has written even a few words knows, there are many different ways of saying the same thing. Consider the following example:
I met John.
No details, just a simple statement. Telling at its most basic. If we wanted to show our relationship, we could have said:
I met my enemy, John.
Now, let’s embellish that a bit, in the simplest way possible:
I greeted my enemy, John.
Simply by changing the verb, we have created a more descriptive, yet equally simple, phrase. So far, we’re still telling, though. To show, we would need to add some detail:
I shook John’s hand. Hard.
A bit awkward, but we’re moving in the right direction. Now, one of the tricks of modern, trendy writing is to love specifics. So, break down our noun to its most basic components:
My fingers squeezed John’s. Hard.
Almost there. However, we’re still lacking two things: sensory detail and emotional tells. What more can we learn about the encounter?
I squeezed John’s fingers. Hard. His signet ring dug into my flesh, but I ignored the pain.
A simple encounter has suddenly come alive with emotion and innuendo. The reader realizes that that John and I have an adversarial relationship, without the author actually stating the fact. A signet ring implies wealth, prestige. And my ignoring the pain implies I hate him enough to want to do something about it.
So, why is this style of writing so popular? My personal explanation is that it’s due to movie influences. Readers are used to watching the story unfold on screen, not having it narrated to them. Books written in a telling style can come across as a David Attenborough documentary. I mean, we’re already watching the tiger eat the gazelle. We don’t need David’s soothing voice informing us of the fact.
Like all good things, the technique has certain drawbacks, usually not mentioned in writing courses. Namely, showing is usually more verbose that telling. Consider the following example:
Is Showing more evocative? Definitely. Is it more effective? It depends. You may not want to use a whole paragraph where a simple line might suffice, especially during expositions or simple descriptions. There comes a point when we fall into the trap of writing for writing’s sake. Which is a much more serious offense, in my book (silly pun intended), than telling.
So, as with everything, use your judgment, and don’t let your writing get in the way of your story-telling.
This month, it is Pearseus: Rise of the Prince that’s on sale. Read the second book in my best-selling epic fantasy series for only 99c (no, you don’t need to have read the first book to make sense of it).