When I read, I want to be shown the story. When I write, I want to show a story. A lot of people don’t understand the difference in showing and telling. A lot of writers don’t understand the difference either. Maybe I can help. When you crack open a book, you expect your senses to be engaged. The most effective way for a writer to do that is by using words that produce a reaction in your mind.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard…and if I must admit it…said that the person that criticizes telling is mistaken and that it is a style preference. Umm…no. It is a weakness in craft and skill. I can tolerate some, but when a story is like reading a journal, I close it. Fiction is sensory.
Telling- The boy was heartbroken that his puppy was run over by a car and died.
See? I just told you how the boy felt and the reason he felt that way in 15 words. I didn’t leave any room for your interpretation or your experience. I bludgeoned you with what I want you to know and feel and closed off any chance at all for your imagination to become invested in the story.
Showing- The boy dropped to the road. He cried out as he lifted Fido’s limp body.
See? I used the exact same number of words, but I didn’t tell you what happened or how the boy felt. I showed you a glimpse of the scenery (road), a few actions (dropped, cried, lifted) and the trigger (Fido’s limp body) that caused the boys action. The rest I leave for you to decide, to feel, to hear. I allow your senses to pick up my clues. I trust you as a reader to understand. And in doing that, I give you more.
Telling- He ran his finger over her cheek and told her he loved her.
Boring! What I just told you was a flat, almost meaningless bit of information.
Showing- His fingers whispered over her cheek and he mouthed the three words she needed.
Swoon! Yes, I used a few more words, but they are strong and engaged a sensory reaction in the reader. They invest you.
Telling- Bill was tall with lean muscles that made him look like a cowboy. He moved like an athlete. Sandy admired him as he walked away to get their drinks.
Taking the long way and using this many words is a telltale sign that I do not know how to show you what I mean. It is an ineffective way to communicate and by the time you reach the end, you just don’t care anymore.
Showing- Sandy stared at Bill’s rangy swagger as he went for drinks.
Remember, it is NOT about wordcount, but about making your words count. A writer’s goal is not just to tell a story, but to make you experience the story. We do not have the benefit of movies to engage our readers…unless you write cheesy vampire YA, that is. Choosing strong sensory words is key. Each word should serve a purpose and not be wasted.