Sounds simple doesn’t it? After all it is one of the very first rules of writing. Every beginning author hears it countless times. “I like your idea, but you need to show not tell.” Okay, so you’re scratching your head and asking yourself, what the heck does that mean? I’m telling a story, so what do you want me to show you?
Unfortunately, critiques often offer this type of advice, with little input of what the critiquer (is that really a word?) wants you to do. They want you to do what every great author does—allows you to travel with the characters, see what they see, feel what they feel, and share the passion, the love, the fear, the majestic journey from page 1 all the way to the end of the book. It isn’t enough that you’ve written a great story, unless your readers can see, feel and live that story through your characters eyes.
Copyright laws will prohibit me from publishing some of what I truly felt was the most beautifully artistic showing/not telling writing that I have had the opportunity to read. Okay, I know, you read my earlier review of this book and you know I haven’t been able to really finish reading it. That has nothing to do with the fact that the author is a master at showing and not telling.
In Dean Koontz “One Door Away From Heaven” there’s a scene where young Curtis and his dog are fleeing from the people trying to kill them. In reading this chapter you’ll not only see what Curtis sees, you’ll feel his tension, his fear, his desperation and his tiredness as he runs further and further. You’ll basically have the opportunity to see the stars, feel the thudding of his feet, and truly become young Curtis in his flight. That’s mastery of showing/not telling. You want to create not just a scene, but a vivid visual mood with rhythm that propels the reader on to the next scene.
The majority of people experience some type of visual perception of thoughts, words and emotions. The books I enjoy the most are the ones that are almost movie-like in their approach to showing. I use my imagination to create the pictures, but the author has laid the groundwork for those images, moods and rhythm I’m going to follow.
My first draft is usually far from the standard of “show don’t tell”. It is a basic draft or outline of the complete story. Only when it’s finished do I go back in and see where I fell short.
Rhythm and mood can be accomplished not only through vivid scenery, and descriptive characters, but also punctuation. I look at each sentence from the standpoint of “am I really feeling this” or “how could I say it better?” And then I start my rewrite. My foundation is there – the complete story. I know that story by heart, but my readers won’t. I love my characters, but unless I give the reader a reason to love them they may find them somewhat lacking. So my rewrite is basically a spruce it up, musical exercise in rhythm. Do my words flow or does a reader have to stop and wonder why there’s a comma there?
Every author, especially beginning authors should spend as much time reading as you do writing. Read everything you can. Study the author’s style, their word expressions. Does it work for you? Can you feel it? If yes, then study their punctuation style, and notice the rhythm of the sentences. That doesn’t mean you want to adapt your style to the author’s style. If it isn’t truly “your” style it simply won’t work for you. And the best way to learn this lesson is to join a critique group. Not for your own work so much, but so that you read the work of other writers and try to help them make it better. By seeing the mistakes you feel they’re making, you’ll more easily recognize your own mistakes. Once again – every author should spend as much time reading as writing.
First, let me say up front I’m no Dean Koontz. I’m still learning, and will be learning I’m sure for years to come. But in expressing an example of show don’t tell I’m going to share an excerpt from Sacred Secrets. If I had the first draft available for this scene you would understand the rewrite. Basically the rough draft detailed her finding the article, a few tears, blah, blah, blah. That wasn’t what I wanted to convey. I wanted to convey the depth of her feelings. “. . .until she came to one that froze her fingers, stilled the beating of her heart.” Hopefully I accomplished just a little of that. All of us at one time have seen, heard, or experienced something that made us pause, only to find ourselves involuntarily moving toward that scene. Real life. And in showing real life experiences are the best.
Sitting forward again Katie altered her search, typing in Dr. James Arthur and Camp Hope. The page came up quickly, showing entries one through ten of 1,210,000. Okay, so it wasn’t going to be easy. Undaunted she scanned the first page, reading through the descriptions until she came to the one that froze her fingers, stilled the beating of her heart. Her finger moved involuntarily on the mouse, double clicking on the article. Warm brown eyes gazed out at her. Eyes she remembered.
The article was a beautiful memorial to the young man who had devoted his life to helping terminally ill children. His struggle to get other doctors involved, bring the children together to share their frustration, anger and hurt. A one-man crusade for organ donation.
Katie wiped the tears from her face as she continued to read. It was all there. The camp. Even the huge oak tree outside the main building. The house at Twelve-ten Chantilly Lane. The only difference--it was in Pendleton, Oregon, not Washington. And it had all been destroyed by fire twenty-five years ago.
Grief rippled through her as she read how Dr. Arthur had sacrificed his life in an effort to save a young woman trapped on the second floor of his home. A young woman in a wheelchair. A twelve-year-old heart patient named Clover Bottoms.
A smiling photo of Frank Davis flashed on the screen as the article detailed the bravery of the young camp volunteer that had followed Dr. Arthur into the fire with no thought for his own safety.
Katie heard the sobs, not realizing they were coming from her. Deep painful sobs that twisted her insides, exposing raw nerves, cramping her muscles. She bent forward, rocking back and forth as tortured moans escaped her lips.
“Follow your heart, Katie.”
If you’ve ever suffered true grief, the kind that cramps your muscles, and causes you to bend forward, rocking back and forth—you totally understand how Katie feels in this scene. And even if you haven’t suffered that type of grief, you may have seen it.
Showing and not telling isn’t as simple as it sounds. You need to use a combination of visual moods, emotions, body language and punctuation. However, the more you place your scene as a “real life” scene, visualize it in your mind, the easier the concept will be to you, and the easier it will be to make your characters and your story come to life.