One of the mistakes some writers make is to slip into telling the reader everything that’s going on in sweeping generalisations. A reader won't see what a writer is visualising until the writer describes the scene, character or action. Until then it is a blank.
All any reader can ever see is what the writer allows him or her to see and the only way the reader can do this is if the writer takes the time to describe it.
In an article in the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop Dialogue shouldn’t say it out loud, Brandon Walker quotes Robert McKee as saying, “Exposition should be invisible. Show, don’t tell.”
By this he means that if something happens in a place it is important for the way the writer describes the situation and characters reactions to it….not because the reader is told there was a battle there 100 years ago and 10,000 people died. That is a history lesson not narrative)
The reader should know it is important by the way the writer describes the situation, the characters’ reactions to it and the way life changes because of it.
In her book We have to talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver has the father give their son a crossbow. The moment I read that a shiver went up my back simply by the way it was described. Later, I found out why I reacted the way I did.
I often catch myself unexpectedly rushing to finish a piece of writing and when that happens I throw words on the page in the form of exposition…telling the reader, this happened and then that happened and this was what followed.
After a while I realised that the writing was boring because I did not take the time to describe what I saw in my mind’s eye. There was no colour, no interesting interaction or connection with the environment. As readers, we can only make connections when we actually can get inside a character’s skin and live the story with them.
That closeness only comes when I, as the writer, take the time to pause and invite the reader to enter my world. They only enter it if I describe it. Details bring a character to life, just as description gives the reader a sense of place.
Walker’s article goes on to explain that sub-text is what brings a character to life. Sub-text is showing.
It is the energy that drives what people do and say. We, as readers, discover the true nature of a character through sub-text. It is revealed by what they say and do but is never actually stated. History informs sub-text…in other words back story.
When a character is afraid of water we immediately ask why? Back story answers the question.
Somewhere in the story the answer will be woven into the story but never with a sentence that begins, ‘He was afraid of water because…’ That is telling.
One of the rules I follow as I write is to be specific. If a child is swimming with friends and he or she gets into difficulty and his friends save him we can easily tell the reader this has happened.
Telling the story would go something like this:
Simon suddenly felt the water drag him down. He pushed himself up. “Help I’m drowning,” he cried. His friends noticed and went back to save him.
This is a fine example of telling. But it is awful to read.
How do we change that into showing?
The only way is to start asking questions like…
- How did Simon get into trouble? One of the reasons could be that they were swimming in a lake and a chill wind suddenly came up and the water became choppy.
- What did he do to get himself out of trouble? We know he called out. But why did he call out? The answer is that the waves were washing over him and the undercurrent was dragging him down.
- Now I wonder how he is feeling? We all can probably guess and we can describe that.
And so we go on. It is harder to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ because the writer has to visualise what is happening and describe that. The more emotion a writer can add the greater the impact on the reader.
Both these websites talk about the power of show don’t tell.