“Show me; don’t tell me,” my English professor quipped as she handed back my latest creative work, a flourish of bright red ink gracing the top of the page with a grade I found much less than desirable.
Learning to differentiate between showing and telling in my writing was a hard lesson to grasp during my early years as a writer. Luckily, I kept reading my weight in books over and over again as I practiced my craft. If Stephen King doesn’t provide a fine example of this technique over and over again, I don’t know who does. And I was lucky enough to find myself inside the classrooms of diligent and knowledgeable instructors, who were quite adept at teaching me the ins-and-outs of crafting a darned fine story. As an author today, I try my hardest to hold those lessons close, always endeavoring to hone and perfect my craft—and I will never stop trying to improve. As an editor, I strive to share anything I learn with my fellow authors. I’ve found that many struggle with the subject of this blog post and so hoped it might be useful to write up a post providing a couple of examples put into practice.
Showing in scenes of past action
I’ve read many scenes in which the author attempts to sum up actions occurring in the past, instead of flashing back to that point in time, giving the reader the opportunity to look through a magic window and watch the scene play out. It all comes down to adding adequate detail and expanding on one’s writing expertise so that the event is easily pictured in the reader’s mind. I’ll show you an example. The first scene will employ telling vs the second, which shows.
When I was a little girl, Timmy bullied me horribly. He pulled pranks on me even his own friends found to be harsh and unnecessary. He tortured me with words as well as deeds, cutting me to the bone with his taunts. I couldn’t get him to stop, no matter how much I cried or pleaded. One day he did something horrible, and I found myself forced to stand up to him. I defended myself against his cruelty by fighting back, which actually brought the bullying to an end.
During second grade, I attended school with a little boy, Timmy, who’d become my worst nightmare. He’d stood nearly one and a half times my size and doubled me in girth as well. His beady little green eyes had always found me the moment I’d stepped onto the playground at recess every day. With the shock of greasy black hair falling over one of his evil orbs, one might’ve wondered how his aim was so accurate when he landed punches against my jaw and square in the middle of my solar plexus. The hard-earned love of my teachers had become a handicap when Timmy had used it as a weapon against me. He’d taken great joy in dubbing me, “Lil Ass Kisser,” replacing my name with the term every time he’d caught sight of me. This had lead him to come up with taunts like, “Hey, Lil Ass Kisser, what’s that on your nose?” after which I’d found my appendage being shoved into the sticky mud. He’d forbidden me from washing the dirt away before we’d all returned to the classroom, causing my teachers to roll their eyes in exasperation and disbelief as they’d banished me to the boys’ washroom to make myself presentable…again. My mother had advised me to tell him how hurtful his actions were, but when I’d told Timmy his words and actions, “…really hurt my feelings,” he and his cronies had broken into fevered laughter before he’d told me, “I’ll show you what real hurt is, you slug.” That had been the day he’d dislocated my shoulder as he’d shoved my face into the earth. My tears hadn’t moved him to mercy in the least, as he’d left me wailing on the ground, so racked with pain I couldn’t move until the teacher had found me under the jungle gym outside, my face streaked by muddy tears and snot.
One day, I’d caught a caterpillar who’d been making his way along the rough bark of the massive oak tree at the edge of the playground. As he’d innocently inched along my finger, Timmy had snuck up behind me, slapping his hand down over mine and smashing my new friend into goo in the process. When I saw the green splatter of wasted innocent life dripping from my hand, something in me had snapped. I’d whirled in fury, crashing into Timmy so hard, he’d fallen instantly to the dirt. My eyes red with rage, I’d straddled him, beating his face with my tiny but effective fists until it had been transformed into a mess of bright blood sullied by caterpillar guts. Every time Timmy had focused those dull eyes on me in the future…he’d run in the opposite direction.
Which retelling would you whether read? Adding a few dry facts about a flashback is no match for providing vivid details which take the readers to the place where they can picture the events unfold inside their imagination.
Showing with dialogue
As a reader, and an editor, there’s nothing worse than when I see something like this when reading a text I’m deeply engrossed in:
We told each other stories about all the Christmases we’d enjoyed the most. I told him about all my favorite presents and he described his most treasured to me. We told each other which carols we’d sung and about our most beloved foods at Christmas dinner. He described to me his most beloved memory of Christmas: the tree with all its ornaments passed down through the years, coupled with the enchanting colors of the strung lights, the same treasured memory as my own.
While endearing…this can be much improved upon.
“What was your favorite Christmas?” I asked him, staring up into the light that was his eyes.
“The year I was six,” he answered, his eyes growing misty at the memory. “I’d asked Santa for a train set. One that would run upon its tracks when I pushed a button.”
“And you got one that year?”
“Yes,” he answered. “All I had to do was pop in a new set of batteries to see it race over the track whenever I desired.” He paused before gazing down at me with curiosity in his eyes. “How about you? What present did you love the most? What brought you the most excitement of any Christmas morning you can remember?”
“I was four.”
“Can you really remember back so far?” he asked, laughing.
“I can,” I assured him. “That was the year I found my first drum kit under the tree. I really can still remember the way my parents stuffed foam earplugs into their ears, still smiling to make me believe they loved the noise I made.”
“Now, those are good parents,” he told me, after his laugher had died away.
“Oh, they were,” I assented. “We used to sing “Jingle Bells,” the three of us, when they tucked me in on Christmas Eve.”
“It was always “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in my family,” he said, a saddened smile playing across his face.
I wanted to erase the parts that weren’t happy in that expression of his. “Did you eat turkey and mincemeat pies?” I asked him.
“My family always ate ham. But my mother made the best pecan pies. Did yours?”
“The best sugar cookies,” I told him. I could feel the differences creeping in to separate us further. “I did love our tree,” I said, failing to see how anyone could refuse to cherish their own Christmas tree.
“That was always my favorite part of the holiday,” he revealed. “I used to lie beneath it and let the twinkle of all the colors carry me into sleep.”
“We have that in common,” I whispered. “I always did the same.”
See the difference again? Showing is always better than telling. Any writer can state facts… Can you make the details come alive with a flair that makes the reader forget their surroundings? Practice your own art of showing and work to perfect your skills as a writer.