Good morning!  I hope everyone had a happy holiday yesterday, and if you don't celebrate, I hope you were able to enjoy some time off on a Federal Holiday!

Show don't tell -- we are preached that as beginning authors.  But what is the elusive meaning of that phrase?

Well, there's a very simple way to look at it, and I hope you'll walk away from this discussion today understanding a little more.  Mind you, again this is one of those topics that could go on for days.  I'm discussing one aspect of it, and one means of addressing it.

Do you remember the last camping trip you went on?  The last time you sat with friends and told a story?

"It was five years ago, and Julie and John went driving up Mount Skell to camp at the old cabin where it was rumored a man had been hanged to death.  Little did Jim know it would be the last time he went camping.  They lay down in their beds, the night wind blew through the closed windows, forming eerie moans in the silence.  Footsteps sounded on the floor.  Jim felt something crawl across his face.  He opened his eyes to find the man leering over him, his eyes swollen as if they were bulging out of his face, his lips cracked and dried.  He whispered one word.  "Revenge""
Yeah -- that kind of story telling.  Note... story telling.  Not story showing.

It's very easy for us writers to hear voices in our head and transpose the story that's being narrated subconsciously into actual words.  We hear it, we write it.  And we forget the translation to showing.

If a passage, a chapter, or even the whole book can give a reader the feeling they are sitting at a campfire listening to a ghost story, the writing is indeed telling.  You are narrating the story to the reader, not putting the reader in the thick of the plot and allowing them to hear, see, feel the same thing the characters are feeling.

Showing is putting more than the simple event on the page.  In the above, a simple event would be "They lay down in their beds."  Making it more than that requires some description, the feel of what is going on. Something like:

"John set a knee on the lumpy mattress. Dust puffed up from the mouse-infested stuffing, filling his nose.  He sneezed.  At his side, Julie laughed.  The light melody of her voice soothed the chills that crept down his back.  Chills he couldn't understand.  Like someone, or something watched them from the shadows beyond the trees.  This place was certainly spooky enough to pass as haunted.  No wonder the kids in town were afraid to come up here.  He was twenty-eight, and he couldn't wait to get out of the rickety old cabin."

Showing usually means breaking out portions of time into longer, more detailed events.  Summary is avoided.      Details are key to the experience.  I hit his sense of smell, his hearing, and sense of touch.  And I gave him a visceral reaction to those elements.

If you can remember to slow down, particularly in key places where you want to build some sort of tension, you are moving closer to showing the story take place.

Quick Tip:

When you've finished a chapter, pass it off to a reader -- can be even a family reader, but someone not close to you is better -- and ask them this one simple question:  "Did you feel like you were experiencing events along with him?  Or did you feel like you were experiencing his events second-hand?"  If second-hand is the answer, go back through, break it down into smaller pieces, and add in some details to make the passage come alive.


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1 Response so far.

  1. Great post reminding everyone how to write in a way that the reader experiences the action and is not just being told about it.

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