How many times are we going to hear this? As many times as it takes to get it through that thick writer skull! Show, show, show me what you want me to see. Telling is for writers that aren’t interested in being published.
This is one of the most important tools in your writer toolbox. The ability to show your readers what is going on. It doesn’t matter if your main character is just picking up a gallon of milk from the grocery store, I want to see the store and if there is a zombie apocalypse breaking out – you better show me.
Remember ‘The Mist’ by Stephen King? Most of the story takes place in a store. An everyday, innocent place becomes a bastion of safety or maybe a tomb for those left behind. The reason we know this, is not because Mr. King tells us. It is because Stephen King is a master of showing. When you read his stories, you see the horror in his character’s motions. Their faces are visible in your mind’s eye. You can taste their fear…delectable fear. If you have not read this story, pick up any of King’s books. Even readers that are not horror fans will be able to see how he pulls readers into his scenes.
Here’s a breakdown of what telling is:
You describe the actions of the character but do not describe the emotions or surroundings to readers. Hm, here I am trying to tell you…that’s no good. I’ll show you instead.
Paul stood in the checkout line and watched as the zombie nonchalantly nibbled on the bag boy two lines over.
Okay, do you see the problem here? We know where Paul is and what he sees. Nothing else, though. We have no idea what Paul thinks, feels, or if he is so whacked out on drugs that this is all just a hallucination.
Let’s take a look at what the same scene looks like if we show the reader what is going on.
That evening’s dinner fell to the tiled floor, forgotten. A stench of old death assaulted Paul’s nostrils when the automated doors slid open and the fresh air stirred the zombie’s rotting clothes. The casual way it chewed on the screaming bag boy’s arm reminded Paul of last night’s chicken legs.
Not a perfect example, but I’m sure you can see the difference. In the first example, while it gets the job done, there is no flavor. Mmm, flavor.
In the second example we can see what is happening. Paul is shocked enough to drop his groceries, can smell the fetid zombie, and has a weird connection in his mind with his former dinner. Nasty, but effective in communicating the absurd horror of the grocery store zombie.
I am fond of telling writers to paint a picture with words. This is exactly what show, don’t tell means. We are sharing our worlds with readers, instead of giving them the bland slide-show, let’s take the time to record a high definition DvD. Put that sucker into the reader’s plasma screen mind and give them the grand tour of your world.