Ever notice how writers tend to panic when this topic comes up? Adrenaline surges. Cortisol releases. Stress hormones run amok!
Because especially when starting out (although often far down the writing road as well), finding that balance between showing and telling can be tricky indeed.
I hear versions of:
“But wait! How will the reader see what’s going on in the scene if I don’t describe it?”
“I thought I was supposed to convey what’s going on?”
Or, my favorite:
“But that’s what happened!”
Whatever may have very well happened that way in real life, but remember—this is a book, not a journal or diary or screenplay, the latter of which then comes to life in living color.
Rather than being described (told), the events in a book are to be created, evoked, showed in order for the people and places to take on color, nuance, texture as if on a canvas painted by an impressionist’s hand.
Writers often tell me they’ve heard this, they know the theory, but putting it into practice makes them feel like they’re banging their heads against walls.
So, what’s a writer to do? Let’s take a closer look.
My favorite quote about showing comes from Samuel Clemens: “Don’t tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Simple, of course, rarely being easy.
To begin with, writing fiction is different from script or academic writing. The point of fiction is to create a story, and create characters. Rather than describing, you want your writing to evoke feelings, scenes, moods, etc.
In order to paint beautiful pictures with words, you need a perception adjustment. The difference is subtle, yet vital.
So, let’s take an example.
Think of looking upon a breathtaking scene, say, Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here is a description of it:
“The land was green on the road leading up the foothills. Horses were in pens on the left. Wooden fences were on either side. Sun shone on the mountain’s side. Pine trees grew halfway up it. Snow covered the top. The sky was blue. The peak rose to 14,000 feet.”
Yeah, you get the facts. You get the description. But I haven’t a clue what it looks like. Nor do I get the character’s perception of it. Here’s the same scene, created:
“The narrow road snaked up the mountain, surrounded on either side by lush and verdant green. Spring had brought life-giving rains to the land that only weeks before lay barren and dead. Up ahead, the jagged, purple peak beckoned me, snow trails trickling down it like sugar icing on a cake. Near the road, an old gelding stood trapped in a rickety pen, staring up at the rocky cliffs. Take me too, his eyes seemed to say.”
(And yes, this is a bit purple, but intentionally so in order to make the point!)
Ah, now we get emotion—a semblance of life and death, of rebirth, and of the quest for freedom. Look at how much more mileage you get from the latter as opposed to the former.
Next, note the different mood caused by the word choices, and from active vs. passive voice.
Because here’s the rub: Passive voice is very telling. It’s weak. It’s slow. Your point here is not to tell a story, but to involve the reader in one. To get as much impact from your words as possible. To move the tale along.
Now let’s take another of our senses:
“She heard the car come up the driveway.”
Well, okay, so you get that the car drove up. But did you hear it? She did, but did you, as the reader?
Look at the difference when you create instead the sounds:
“Tires crunched up the gravel drive.”
You heard it that time, no? Plus, we get a sense that whomever lives where the driveways aren’t paved.
And another sense:
“Breakfast smelled delicious.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t smell that.
“The pungent aromas of sizzling garlic and pepper wafted through the air.”
These put showing and evoking vs. describing in the crosshairs.
Finally, any time you want to check your work, do so through your own senses. It sounds easy, and it is! Just ask yourself a few questions:
Can you see the action?
Can you hear it?
Can you smell it?
Can you taste it?
Can you feel what’s happening?
If you answer yes to all of those, then you’re doing a great job of showing/evoking, and lessening the telling/describing.
Then you’re hitting the sweet spot.
Good luck and let me know how it goes!