Welcome to a new installment on ‘A Cat’s Guide to Writing!’ I am your host, Zazzle the Beguiling Tyrant. I steal the intel from the human female’s brain, and I share it with you!
We of the Furred & Frond Management hope you find this post helpful.
Showing versus telling is one of the fundamentals of writing. It is how you engage a reader in a story and immerse them in it. Telling is also important, but showing is how you bring characters to life.
In a previous post, we discussed the importance of a compelling hook in writing, and we touched on the basics of show versus tell. For those of you who may have missed it, here is the introduction to show versus tell:
Show, do not tell.
We of the Furred & Frond Management will be writing an entire article about how to show rather than tell, but we will give you a very brief example.
Telling: Bob didn’t really give a shit about antique tables.
Showing: Several coasters waited on the edge of the worn, old surface of a coffee table that’d somehow escaped a legacy of mug rings, out of Bob’s reach. He considered moving to the other side of the sedan, grunted at the effort he’d have to invest, and placed the steaming mug on one of the paler spots, where the veneer had worn away over decades of use.
What was one little ring?
Showing requires many more words to pull off than telling, but you present a better story when you take the time to show the character’s thought process. In this case, you can infer Bob has the capacity of caring but not the mental fortitude to follow through when it involves him having to invest any effort.
Not the kind of person you want to bring to your house if you have an antique coffee table, to say the least…
The whole point of showing is to infer facts about the character.
You can judge a lot about a character from the choices they make, and showing is the art of communicating those things… without just saying “Bob didn’t really give a shit about antique coffee tables.”
That said, telling is a tool that authors should use to convey important information without spending twenty pages to show it. Sometimes, one told sentence is worth its weight in gold.
But showing is how you truly engage a reader.
As mentioned above, showing is a great deal more work than telling. I could convey Bob didn’t give a shit about coffee tables. It’s not that important a detail–or is it? One of the problems (and challenges) of showing versus telling is to know when you should tell and when you should show.
If it would take 2 pages to convey that this character doesn’t like milk but doesn’t hate it, either, unless the milk plays a hugely vital role later in the story, you’re better off doing a very brief exposition on her relationship with milk.
Here are some examples.
Telling: Amy neither liked nor disliked milk.
Semi-short showing: Amy reached into the fridge, snagged the carton of milk, and wrinkled her nose at it, set it on the counter, and retrieved a glass. She opened the spout, narrowed her eyes, and took a sniff, almost hoping for the tell-tale signs of it having soured.
No such luck.
After one final, futile examination of the fridge’s interior for something else to drink, she heaved a sigh, poured a glass, and returned the milk to its rightful place.
Tomorrow, she needed to go to the store for some Coke, stat, before she started mooing.
So, using the art of showing, I’ve conveyed Amy doesn’t really like milk, but she WILL drink it if there’s nothing left. Using a brief, line of telling, we have informed the readers she prefers Coke, but the telling has been dressed in showing.
When you’re telling a story, you’re building a relationship with the reader–and you’re trying to paint a picture for them. The female has aphantasia, so she can’t see any pictures in her head. That makes this challenging, since the whole point of showing is to give readers the tool to imagine what is going on in the book.
Showing helps paint pictures with words, but in reality, you’re allowing the reader to decide for themselves what the character feels about things.
Amy will drink milk, but she doesn’t like it enough she’d spend a few minutes searching the fridge for something else. That shows a lot more than “Amy doesn’t really like milk.” It’s also a lot more entertaining.
When you tell a story, you’re just listing the plot and details to the readers. When you show it, you’re taking them on an adventure. The adventure is what many readers want.
This, in a way, ties in with exposition, which is conveying necessary information in a telling format. Exposition is an art. Honestly, you can write an entire book using exposition if your writing is just that engaging in general. Thing is, showing is much easier to engage with the reader than telling ever will be.
That’s why you hear people complain about exposition dumps. They’re usually boring. If you can give a reader ten pages of exposition and make them like it… you’re doing a great job.
But showing? Showing is far more fun to read. (And it’s a much larger hassle to write. But that’s okay. It’s worth it.)
This is a skill that takes practice. You probably won’t develop the ability to show your stories overnight, although I’ve found (when I’ve worked with my developmental editing clients) that once it really ‘clicked’ what showing is all about, they’d begin truly honing their writing skills in a hurry.
But seriously… try showing. It will really help make your book–and your characters–come to life on the page.