Writing Tip - How to Show Not Tell

Writing Tip - How to Show Not Tell

Action is eloquence.”

– William Shakespeare

If we find ourselves editorializing, that is telling or explaining what is happening in our story . . . it’s “OK” . . . however, we probably don’t want to stay on this track for too long. We want to get back to the action. We want to get back to showing what is happening even if it is an internal dialogue that the character is running.

In the opening of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells us about “all this madman stuff that happened last summer.” He tells us that we’re likely going “to want to know all about his lousy childhood and all that David Copperfield crap,” then tells us he can’t get into it because his folks are “very touchy” and “would have about two heart attacks apiece” if he talked about it.

Is Salinger telling or showing? Well, he is showing. Sure, the narrator is telling us stuff, but in fact we are experiencing this character as he tells us everything by not telling us anything.

There is a difference between showing and telling. Telling is the author sticking his nose in things. It can feel like the author has a bone to pick; it reeks of agenda and opinion and engenders distrust in the reader. Showing is allowing the reader to make up his mind. Showing allows the author to vanish and the reader to become lost in the story. Holden Caulfield never tells us how to think or feel about anything, and as a result we become lost in his world.

Ha Jin’s novel, Waiting, begins with the sentence, “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”

We are being told information, but with this opening sentence our curiosity is ignited and we must know more about this man and his culture. We are being shown a world. We are not being told how to feel about Lin Kong or Shuyu. We are left to decide that for ourselves.

The moment the reader understands the dramatic problem she naturally puts herself in the situation. Our reader will have an emotional connection to our work through showing, not telling. If I tell you that the quest for the American Dream can lead to nightmare, you likely feel nothing. But when you read The Great Gatsby or The Day of the Locust, it can be a life-altering experience.

We don’t need to be overly concerned with all of the big feelings that our story may generate for ourselves. If our story didn’t generate big feelings we wouldn’t be compelled to write it. If we find ourselves falling in love with all of the feelings our hero is experiencing let us be clear that our reader will probably not. Telling the reader what the characters are feeling is the surest way to pull the reader out of the story. What happens in the story is important. The reader will fill in the feelings for herself. We must trust that if we are being specific and staying with the tension, the reader will be invested in what is going on.

Let me know your thoughts.