When writing, whether you’ve just started or have been around for awhile, it’s easy to fall into the “telling” trap. Especially if you blog or do any writing on the internet. There’s an unwritten rule about word count or number of scrolls and lots of readers online have developed ADORO – Attention Deficit Online Reading Overload. (And you thought it was just a cool Spanish word!). It refers to readers who will lose interest and move on to the next post, article or website if the entry they’re reading is too long. We now have microwave readers because of the culture of online information, but that means we’ve created a culture of microwave writers, too. However, if you’re writing a book or short stories you need to get back to basics. The basics, as any editor or publishing professional will tell you, is to “show don’t tell.”
What is “show don’t tell” and exactly how do you do it? Well, it means writing in a way so that your readers can envision each scene, rather than just being told about it. That means some of your wonderful commentary will have to be ditched and replaced with details so that the reader uses their imagination to see things for themselves.
“The interracial couple came into the tavern and shook the rain off of their jackets before hanging them up. It was pouring outside and they had run into the first place they came to for cover. He touched her cheek gently, noticing the raindrops still on her eyelashes and smiled. He loved her more today than he ever thought he could love anyone. He suddenly felt uneasy and looked around the tavern to see that all eyes were upon them. They must have looked like an odd couple, he being white and she being black.”
“They laughed as they ran in the door of the crowded tavern. Her soft, short, curly afro held on to the raindrops like a new sponge, while his dark straight hair lay plastered to his head. Reaching for the collar of her wet jacket, his fingers paused briefly on the delicate curve of her neck. He marveled at her softness and the smoothness of her dark, mocha skin before helping her out her leather coat and hanging it on the rack behind them. He had inherited his fair coloring from his Irish mother and his passionate temperament from his Italian father. He had no idea of her full background, but he knew that the two of them created quiet a contrast. She made him happy and he couldn’t bare the thought of losing the only woman he had ever wanted to marry.
He squeezed her hand, knowing that they would have to face the stares and the whispers again. It was a small town but she wanted to stay there and he wanted what she wanted. She was his only concern and damn everybody else.”
One of the biggest differences between the two examples is the fact that one told the reader the couple was interracial and the races were black and white. The other paragraph describes the couple to the reader, who could then picture them and conclude that they were an interracial couple. In addition, while the word “love” is not used, it is clear how strongly the man feels for the woman.
A more obscure change is not telling the reader that it was raining heavily (it was pouring outside), but showing it (hair plastered to his head).
Another benefit when “showing” rather than “telling” is having the story fleshed out by the little details. As a writer, you have to envision your characters and be aware of their surroundings. You’d be surprised how many scenes can be written without the writer sharing important setting information with the reader.
To help “show” your readers, writers can:
1) Imagine the scene like it’s a movie – Write an outline of everything you see in the room as well as the movement of the characters (do they walk? fidget? sit? stand?). Once you have a clear vision, write your scene.
2) Write a character analysis and not only include what the main characters looks like, but also include little details to make you think about who they are as individualts. Do they like sweets? Were they popular in high school? Did they have a good relationship with their parents? Once you get to really know your characters, you’ll be able to write about them differently.
3) Answer the basics questions of who, what, where, when, how and why for each chapter (as it’s relevant). Most writers always include the required “who” and “what” but usually fail to include “why” and “how” even when it’s extremely relevant.
4) Get an objective reader to review sample chapters. Join a writer’s critique group or take writing classes for exposure to readers outside of your family and friends.
**** This content was written by Nina Guilbeau. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission.