Let me show you what I mean...
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a difficult concept because there’s no way around the fact that written words are simply marks on a page. They have no colour, sound or movement and are only two dimensional. They aren’t photos, videos, graphics or paintings. Let’s face it, no matter which ones we use, written words tell things—left to right, top to bottom, one word at a time.
How do we add dimension to them? The more obvious ways, like dressing them up in bold or italics or empowering them with exclamation marks, don’t seem to impress editors or readers. We must be more creative.
If I write, “She was embarrassed,” that is considered in literary circles to be ‘telling.’ If I say, “Her cheeks reddened and she turned away,” that is showing—although of course my words are simply telling you her cheeks reddened and she turned away.
What makes it showing is readers must become involved in the writing, must draw their own conclusions about why her cheeks reddened.
I’ve discovered two main aspects to what makes writing ‘showing’. One is writing so that readers are enticed into becoming intellectually involved in the story and the other is writing to elicit their emotional involvement.
Eliciting emotional involvement is often done through powerful word choice and symbolism along with superb character development. Getting readers intellectually involved, requires what I call ‘empty spaces’.
Research has shown that humans are attracted to empty spaces. It is why we find things like lace and ferns more beautiful than solid fabrics and poplar leaves. It’s why newspaper graphic artists balance print with white space on page layouts. The hypothesis is that our mind feels compelled to fill empty spaces, thus drawing us into the visual field and giving us the feeling we are becoming part of what we are viewing—something we apparently find enjoyable.
This could also explain why readers like being shown not told—it compels them to insert their own thoughts, feelings and conclusions into the story. They become part of what is happening.
Some writers mistakenly believe that ‘showing’ is using flowery language and extensive verbiage in an attempt to draw pictures with their words. Quite the opposite is in fact what is needed. Good writers leave spaces in their descriptions--vacancies that compel the reader to intellectually participate.
Excellent writers goes to great lengths to keep the reader from realizing they are investing themselves in the story, the more subtle the techniques, the more profound the literature. Poetry is probably on the top end of the scale, with each word demanding an intellectual and emotional investment from the reader. What is being said and how does it apply to me? Poets (and novelists as well) often also use the rhythm and structure of words and sentences to further draw readers into their writing—between each beat is a space that the reader must fill.
Symbolism also requires the investment of the reader. It’s pretty easy to pick out which of these sentences ‘shows’ and which one ‘tells’: “She was nervous.” vs “The feral howls of a lone wolf drew nearer.”
As with all writing techniques and advice, showing not telling can be misused and overused. I’m often guilt of that. Clues I give that are meant to spark a reader’s emotions or understanding are often not clear to those who don’t share my cultural and background experiences. The void I leave for the reader to fill must be tiny if it is important that a reader understand a specific event. I don’t have to ‘tell’ them Shrug is guilty, but I do have to tell them more than ‘Shrug diverted his eyes,’ because in many cultures, diverting one’s eyes is a sign of respect, not guilt.
Although flowery writing isn’t needed to create reader involvement, powerful writing is. Avoid cliché’s because we’ve heard them so often, they don’t elicit much of a response in us. Find unique words and phrases that the reader has never before read. The more specific a word or phrase, the more powerful it is. “A violent thunderstorm” vs “Rolling black clouds and shards of lightening.”
Combining powerful writing with empty spaces and emotional connotation takes everything up yet one more level.
The thunderstorm made her nervous. Or…
Above her, black clouds roiled and shards of lightening split the sky. In the distance a lone wolf howled. She shivered.
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