Every writer gets the same advice at one point in time: show, don’t tell. But what does it mean to show? Or to tell? And why does it matter? This is your introduction!
Showing a reader something instead of telling them is a skill so elusive, it can take years to master—and some authors never master it at all. That’s all right, you can make do with telling, but the odds of getting picked up for publication are higher when you learn to show.
The good thing is: once you understand the difference between showing and telling, you’ll be able to pick out telling sentences instantly from that point on. It’s like a light switch that’s turned on. Once you understand the mechanics of showing emotions instead of telling the reader about them, you’ll start to see it in other parts of writing as well—and hopefully you’ll see how your story is enriched by showing the reader all the bits you have been telling (if this is something you struggle with, of course).
“Showing a reader something instead
of telling them is a skill so elusive,
it can take years to master.“
If you have ever stubbed your toe, you know that it’s not just your toe that reacts to the pain. You might swear involuntarily, your eyes water, you get hot flashes, your heartrate will spike, and your mouth will go dry. You’ll most likely start to sweat too, and you might even get dizzy or feel the need to dance to let out the overflow of sensations you are experiencing. You might even experience a feeling of anger because you were stupid enough to hit something with your toe (even though we will always blame the table leg for moving when we weren’t watching!).
A whole hoard of mental and physical stimuli work together to create the lovely experience of being in excruciating pain. These responses are evolutionary and predictable; everyone reacts largely the same to stubbing their toe. Some people are better at hiding their reactions, or getting themselves under control quickly, but they experience these stimuli nonetheless.
This is especially true with the basic human emotions of anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy, and sadness. There also exist moral emotions, like pride, guilt, embarrassment, and shame. These too have accompanying physiological changes associated with them, and these too are the same in everyone—at least to a degree. Some examples for those who don’t believe me:
- Everyone blushes when they are ashamed
- Everyone’s heart starts to beat faster when they are scared
- We all stand up straighter when we are proud
- We all feel our throats constrict when we are sad
“A whole hoard of mental and
physical stimuli work together to create
the lovely experience of being
in excruciating pain.“
As authors we can (ab)use these universal human truths. If we can get a reader to identify with one aspect of the experience of stubbing their toe, they will also remember (and thus fill in for the POV character) everything else that comes with the experience. If your readers can put themselves one hundred percent into the shoes of your character, you have their undivided attention. Do that throughout the entire book, and they will devour anything else you write, even if the story might not be what they would normally pick up.
This is why showing versus telling is so incredibly important.
Learning to show, not tell takes time and practice. It means putting yourself in the shoes of your main character, looking around the world, taking a deep breath, and then writing about what they notice about the world. It means not just describing how things look, but also how they feel, smell, taste, and sound. It means being aware of your own reactions to experiences so you’ll be able to tap into that fount of universal sameness just described. This is, without a doubt, the hardest part of being an author.
“As authors we can (ab)use
these universal human truths.“
Your best bet to draw the reader in is to show them the story through the eyes of your POV character and make them a part of not just their external, but internal world as well. Let’s try an example of both:
Something cold brushed along his cheek. A yelp escaped him before he could close his mouth, and scenes of gnarly witch’s hands grabbing at him played out in front of his mind’s eye. He nearly lost his footing on the uneven ground as he jerked back. It’s just a branch, you idiot. It had to be, he was in a forest! He could even make out the offending twig now as it bobbed lightly in the faint moonlight. As much as he tried to reassure himself, it was no use. His pounding heart remained stuck in his throat and it was getting harder to breath by the second. I should never have come here.
As Jonas walked, he brushed past a twig. He yelped and stumbled back. It made him think of the fingers of witches touching him and he was scared, even though he knew it had just been a twig. He could see it in the moonlight. Jonas knew he should never have come here.
Example one is an example of showing. The second example is the same scene, just written in a manner that is telling. The difference is that the latter literally tells the reader what happens, while the prior allows the reader to experience what Jonas is experiencing. Most readers prefer to experience what the POV character goes through. They like to identify with them.
“Your best bet to draw the reader in
is to show them the story
through the eyes of your POV character.”
It is my firm belief that most people who read for pleasure read because they want to be teleported to another place, and live the life of someone else. They want to experience the adventure, the budding love, and the excitement that only exists within the pages of books.
Escapism sells, so it is up to any author who wants to sell lots of copies of their work, to provide that escape. The more you can get the reader to identify with your POV character, the deeper you draw them in, and the more they will enjoy the work. This greatly increases the odds of them picking up your next book and recommending your work to others.