Perhaps no advice has been more instrumental in improving the quality of my fiction than embracing the mantra “Show, Don’t Tell.” I don’t think I fully understood its importance until my second novel was published (which goes a long way in explaining why my first two novels were not picked up by traditional presses).
I had asked for “candid” comments from a friend, an experienced writer. Her major point? I spent too much time in my character’s head. I was sucking the mystery and magic out of my story by telling my readers everything. I wasn’t giving them room to make my story theirs, to use their imagination to add texture and meaning. In short, because I was “telling,” I was not connecting with my readers.
I have worked steadily ever since to do more showing in my writing. I am convinced my most recent novel, Tortuga Bay, has done as well as it has—first place wins at Royal Palm Literary Awards, Florida Authors and Publishers Association, a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards—because I embraced this principle. Take this example from a scene where the crew of an 18th century sailing ship is fighting a typhoon. As a beginning novelist, I likely would have written the passage along these lines:
Damn this storm!” Captain Munoz muttered as he held on the railing. The waves were tossing his ship around in the sea as if it were a child’s toy. He looked at the helmsman. “Keep her bow downwind!”
The helmsman looked as if he would throw a sword through Munoz’s heart.
The storm raged on as its crew fought to stay on course.”
But this is what ended up in the award-winning book:
“Damn this storm!”
Captain Munoz clutched the railing as the crest of a wave spun the frigate’s bow across the wind again. The stern fell from under his feet as the ship plunged off a receding wave. “Keep her bow downwind.”
The helmsman looked as if he would throw a sword through Munoz’s heart if he weren’t more afraid of being swept off the deck by the next wave. The wooden beam that kept the ship on course snapped to the side, pulling the helmsman off his feet as two more sailors threw their bodies against the tiller to steady the ship. They had barely turned the rudder back to its rightful place when the back of the ship heaved up under their feet to ride another twenty-foot roller.” (Tortuga Bay, p. 85)
Description recreates the feel of a rough storm at sea, allowing the reader to understand the emotions of the characters, the pressures they face trying to keep their ship afloat as they fight a life-threatening antagonist: the storm.
I remember the afternoon I saw Bill at the Catalina Cafe.
As I balanced my large mocha latte while pulling a chair underneath me to sit, my eyes fell onto his bandaged hand. Before I could look up, his healthy hand was already waving me to sit.
“I know, I know.” His eyes dropped to the tabletop as a scowl darkened his face.
I was sure my eyes could see, with x-ray vision, the reddened, split knuckles below the gauze. The memory from ten years earlier flashed: the broken plaster in our Alpha Omega house, dust settling to the floor, the jagged hole in the shattered drywall.. I shook my head. My jaw dropped open.
“I know,” Bill repeated. The edge in his tone pushed my jaw shut. “I’m going back to Dr. Feldmeyer starting next week.”
I sighed. “Shirley’s not coming back.” My index finger flicked at Bill’s broken weapon. “Not until you fix that.”
Contrast the passage above with the following:
I met Bill at the Catalina Cafe and immediately noticed his hand. Bound in gauze, I knew he was repeating his old violent behavior from our fraternity days. The difference is now he wasn’t drunk. How could he possibly think Shirley would come back to him?
If you were sitting down to enjoy a novel, which of these passages would you find more engaging? More interesting? For most readers, but not all, the first passage is the one that draws them in, invites them to be part of a story. The reader can feel the tension between Bill and the narrator, can imagine the atmosphere, and has time to wonder about the next step in their story.
The second passage does little to draw the reader into the scene. The reader is told the relevant information, implying the scene is not important or relevant, as if saying “Here are the facts, let’s move on.”
Using description to pull the reader into the story is part craft and part art. The transition was challenging for me because my professional career is centered in the world of public policy where telling is critical for effectively communicating to our target audiences: elected officials and the general public. Newspaper commentaries are rarely longer than 600 words, and readers should know what the article is about in the first two or three sentences. Writing must be compact and concise. In other words, don’t “show.” The newspaper doesn’t have the space, and the reader doesn’t have the patience.
Thus, “telling” has its place and role. If fiction writers want to pick up the pace of the story, for example, telling can be an effective writing device. Some writers (e.g., Clive Cussler) have branded themselves with their fast-paced, no description writing style. Also, the point of view (POV) of the story’s characters sometimes requires telling rather than showing, as in the case of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game which is told from the POV of a nine-year-old boy.
The key is to make sure the choice of “showing” or “telling” is intentional and serves the purpose of the story. Most fiction readers want to connect to the characters and their environments. More “showing” and less “telling” is usually the more effective style.
Learn more about “Show, Don’t Tell” during the next CONVERSATIONS Around the Writer’s Table, at 7 p.m., on May 17, 2017. Listen and learn during this free 30-minute program, followed by 30 minutes of open Q&A. Get details HERE.
Want to learn even more about showing vs. telling? If you are local, join Sam and me at the Tallahassee Writers Association monthly meeting on Thursday, May 18. You’ll find more details HERE.
Sam “SR” Staley (srstaley.com) is a multiple award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction books. His writing explores the uncomfortable realities, everyday heroism, and ethical dilemmas faced by contemporary children and adults in a society that values personal freedom and choice. He explores these themes in empowerment novels such as A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade, which explore courage and violence in modern schools, as well as in adventure stories such as The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay. His book on college sexual assault, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About ItIt, was released in 2016 by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing.
Gina Edwards is a retreat leader, a certified creativity coach, and a book editor. She is also a writer, so she’s intimately familiar with the challenges and elation that come with being one.
She supports all writers—published and aspiring—who want to write as an act of courageous and necessary self-expression.
Walking the writer’s path hand-in-hand with her clients and students, she helps them establish a writing practice and define a creative life on their own terms.
Staley might be a good writer but his character knows nothing about piloting a boat in rough seas. She’s going to pitch pole. The bow should be quartered into the oncoming waves. Captain Benita Wiggins
Thank you for you comment Captain Wiggins. You, of course, are correct about the proper way to pilot a boat in rough seas. In the context of the story, however, the captain decided to risk his crew and his boat to pitch pole in a reckless attempt to move toward his destination. The tension between the captain and his crew is driven by this decision because they realize they might capsize at any time and drown if the boat does in fact pitch pole. I welcome any additional comments you might have about proper navigation and piloting, particularly as it relates to sailing, and feel free to reach me directly at email@example.com. Accuracy is important to me; when the actions of my characters or vessels deviate from proper procedure and protocol, I want to make sure its intentional (as in this case), not a result of my poor understanding of sailing.
Thank you for putting the passage into the context of the story that you have written. It works very well in that case.
The fact that you had me worrying about the fate of the ship is a compliment to you and what you were demonstrating in this article about the power of showing, rather than telling. Bravo!
Captain Benita Wiggins