Bewilderment. That is the expression I must have worn as I was stunned into silence. My mild mannered and passionate English teacher was raking me over the coals with a pointed critique of my work. The pride of my youth had me caught somewhere between anger and confusion as I listened to her tangent. Her concept was foreign and in my ignorance, I immediately categorized it as absurd. I had done my duty as a writer, I rationalized. I had told the reader exactly what I intended to and my teacher was just picking on me. Oh, my absolute arrogance. Ms. Simms, if I could go back in time and give myself a good smack upside the head I would. But alas, I am lacking a time machine and must simply attempt to pass on the truth of the concept she spoke of: writers should strive to show and not tell.
I came to understand that the difference my wonderful teacher was trying to explain, was that showing was immersing readers in sensory like descriptions and telling was a list of summarized facts.
When it came to the concept of showing, I began to realize that our lives are comprised of a combination of sensations tied to the environment around us. This means that our memories, wisdom, and knowledge are based on what we experience with our five senses. If I take the time to engage the reader’s senses through proper descriptions, it becomes possible to create a mental tapestry woven together from their own mind and the prose I had written. Amazing isn’t it?
On the other side of the fence, I discovered that the majority of us seek knowledge through experience. This innate desire correlates directly to the reason why attempting to “tell” a reader what they are seeing, experiencing or witnessing is cautioned against. “Telling” is a type of writing that can be perceived as a list of facts and does not easily appeal to the imagination. Instead, many readers find the more logical side of their mind engaged. This can lead to readers feeling less inclined to invest emotionally and possibly lose interest in the prose.
The best way to show (not tell) the difference between the two is to give an example.
The house was old.
The house sat atop a sloping hill, with battered shingles and worn down wood showing its age.
While both sentences let the reader know that the house was old, the differences are very clear. The first sentence is “telling.” This is simply a factual statement that does not evoke any emotion or imagery. The reader has been informed that the house is old. The second sentence is “showing.” It engages the sense of sight with a description of what many would categorize as an old house. Because of this relation to something familiar and engaging the memory of the reader, it can lead to a mental image of the house atop the hill.
The purpose of showing instead of telling is to engage your audience and invite them to use their imagination with your guidance. As writers, we tend to find ourselves lost in the intimate details, images and sensations that come from our own mind, so much so that we sometimes forget that others cannot see what we do. When we write we understand our own characters, environments and story far more intimately than the audience we intend it for.
So take the time to reread your work and ask yourself these questions: Am I engaging the senses with my descriptions? Am I evoking emotion with my words? Do the words I write conjure the images of the tale I intend to tell? These questions and many more like them will help you hone your craft and give your audience a peek behind the curtain that is your creative mind.
I’d love to hear any tips or ideas from you! How do you avoid telling? What are your tools for showing your audience the colors of your imagination? Leave a comment.