If you’ve been writing fiction for any length of time, you’ve heard the “golden rule”: show, don’t tell. But what does it mean, and why does it matter? Because today’s audiences demand it. Let me explain.
WHAT IS SHOWING?
The difference between showing and telling is the difference between experiencing a story for yourself and having someone tell you what happens. Suppose you’re reading a scene where the hero confesses his feelings to the heroine.
If the author is telling, it will look something like this:
He wrapped his arms around her, whispering his love in her ear as he enjoyed the feel of her hair against is cheek.
If the author shows the scene, it will look more like this:
He wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling her neck. “I love you,” he whispered in her ear. He smiled as the silken strands of her golden hair slid across his cheek.
In the first example, the reader is told what feel about the scene (he enjoyed the feel of her hair). In the second, the reader watches what happens (the strands of her hair sliding across his cheek), then makes up her own mind about how to feel about the scene (because he smiles, we assume he enjoyed it). That’s the essence of the difference between showing and telling.
WHY SHOW INSTEAD OF TELL?
These days, audiences expect a story to be shown because that’s what they’re used to – they’re used to watching things happen in the movies and on television, so they expect the same kind of action on the page.
If you’re a fan of classical literature, you’ve read a lot of telling. Back in the day, the narrator set the scene and explained what was going to happen and how it happened. The audience sat back and watched, letting someone else tell the story. We were told when people laughed, if they were sad, and what inspired those emotions.
Today, however, people want to experience the story. On the screen, you see characters acting and reacting – you can see when the speak, movie, pause, even read the emotions on their faces. The audience sees a character smile, so they don’t need to be told that the character is happy. When the hero kisses the heroine and confesses his love, there’s no need for a narrator to explain how he feels. The audience has seen everything, has experienced it with the characters, and can make up its own mind how to interpret what’s happening in the story.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Will today’s audiences read “telling” books? Sure. Lots of published books include telling. Some even sell well, but those are the exception to the rule. Usually a telling book is a good book, fun to read, but it’s just another story.
Books that show, however, capture the readers’ attention and engage their emotions – they’re books that readers can’t wait to pass along. These are the stories that make the readers laugh and cry. They are the books that get passed from person to person, not because it made a book club list, but because the reader connected with the characters and couldn’t wait to share the story with someone else.
That’s why we’re obsessed with showing. Because you can tell a good story, or you can show a great one.
What’s the last novel you read that you couldn’t wait to share – I’d love to read it!
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