If any of us have taken an English, Language Arts, or Creative Writing class, we have heard about showing what’s going on as opposed to telling what’s happening in a given situation. But what does this look like? And why does it matter? Is there ever a time when you would rather tell?
The merits for showing are overwhelming when compared against the merits for telling. But there is a place for both. However, let’s start with showing the differences between the types of storytelling.
Starting with basic premise and a basic scene, we can begin a story. Not every tale is going to be a sweeping epic on a large scale. We can tell great stories in a very limited setting, as most of the great stories are based on situations; I’ve found that most novels are a series of situations centered on a character or set of characters.
It’s how these situations flesh out that make something readable or not.
So what does this look like?
Premise: Man visits park with dog. Sees girl he likes.
Showing: The breeze was light this day. Still, he was glad he had grabbed his long coat, as winter was quickly coming, the first freeze of the year having just passed and all the colors on the trees had begun their transformation to rich strokes of orange, yellow and red. The scents of the evergreens lining the path filled the air.
Sam ran ahead of him on the leash, nothing too special, just an eight foot leash, classic; none of these new-fangled gadgets with retractable cord for him. Sam was small for her breed, a German Shepherd mix he had found some years ago on the verge of starvation. Healthy and loyal to a fault, he couldn’t ask for a better friend in the world.
He was fairly certain “she” would be here; perhaps he would have the courage to even say hi, he was sure the blush in his cheeks every time she smiled at him was a dead giveaway, but how on earth was he supposed to talk to someone so perfect? If he was lucky, he might be able to get out a forced “hi”.
As he turned the next bend, he found her in her normal spot, sitting down at her regular bench, her strawberry blond hair blowing lightly, freely. The soft curves of her face were at once inviting and far too much for him to handle, he could already feel his cheeks flushing. She was wearing a light coat, enough to keep the breeze out, but not bulky so she could write. She was always writing something, perhaps a diary, or journal. He allowed his mind to wander and wonder as he neared her.
Telling: He found himself in what had become his favorite daily ritual as he walked his beloved dog, Sam, through the park. The trees had begun their autumnal change, and he loved the sight of it all, but if truth be told, he had ulterior motives for being there. Women, it’s always women.
Sam had some room to play while he let his thoughts wander back to “her”. If only he could speak to her, get to know her. But no matter what, every time he saw her he lost his words, literally unable to speak and sounding like a bumbling fool. And if she smiled at him, forget it; he turned into a stuttering, mindless freak completely devoid of the ability to formulate a coherent thought.
In some ways, it seemed like she liked having that power over him. Oddly enough, for all of his inability to talk to her, there he was, day after day, and she was there as well. He could see her now, his beauty, and she was at her regular bench, head down.
If you pay close attention to the Showing section, you can see more of the picture surrounding the scene, and you can actually see it unfold before your eyes. There is more implication, the little nuances being just there beneath the surface, hinted at, for you to catch and respond to as you’re immersed in the scene, being drawn in.
In the telling section, you get more of the internal ideas. You see where his mind is, a better grasp of his obsession, or infatuation. There is less of the world surrounding him, so you see less of what’s going on situationally and more of what’s going on internally.
Why does this matter?
It matters because a reader wants to see, feel, hear, smell and touch. In a situation, all five senses are required to be immersed. We use these things, even if we don’t realize it, when reading. Because a good author will remember that all these things matter.
It should be noted that there is a balance to be had here.
Sometimes a situation calls for a scent to be focused on, as it’s important to the scene. Sometimes it doesn’t. The wisdom comes in knowing if something like a smell is going to help in placing someone at the scene with the character. If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong. I use scent as a point of reference, but any of the senses fall into this. We may not always use all senses to immerse a reader, and sometimes we may.
Is there ever a time when telling should be priority?
As for telling, obviously there is a place for it. You can’t tell a story without getting beyond the description and telling the story. It’s fairly straightforward. In my case, I have a passion for using dialogue to carry the story forward. I have found that a smart mix of dialogue, showing and telling are all necessary, and telling is often good for moving past the parts that don’t matter as much, especially in time lapses. If nothing important occurs during a time lapse, then you can skip over the time with filler telling.
Again, it all comes down to what matters. What is happening? Why is this happening? Does anything significant happen that needs to be told? If not, or if there is nothing that drives the actual story forward then it can be easily glossed over. This is important in make sure that we keep to the story and keep to the plot from scene to scene. Often, in novels a scene is either a chapter, or there are multiple scenes within a chapter. The purpose is to see progression.
Anytime we read a book, we want to be engaged, and we want to reach the end to see what happens to our favorite characters. But in order for a reader to get to that point, the characters have to be believable, the story has to be coherent, and everything needs to make sense as the story progresses. Breathtaking settings are a great thing, but at the end of the day it’s the story that carries a reader through. Great writing is something to aspire to, but even great writers have had terrible story ideas that just won’t work. Cancel the story at that point and try again.
I’m definitely of the mindset that a great novel has all elements of good storytelling within it. A good story, a great delivery (balance between showing and telling), fantastic dialogue and characters we can see ourselves loving or hating.