I’ve been practicing the eternal craft of SHOW vs TELL. It is one of the most elusive and difficult forms of good writing to master, but also one of the most rewarding. When you TELL your story rather than SHOW, you disconnect the reader from their imagination. They don’t have to think about your description and therefore don’t use that invisible eye to see the world as you see it. Once you reach that point, you’re dependent on the plot and characters to keep them invested.
If you show someone what’s happening, you engage their imagination.
The reader’s brain has to work a little bit harder, think a little bit longer, and piece by piece the image forms in their head. Suddenly your story is no longer words but an actual event that is happening, has happened, or will happen. The characters become real, the world becomes fascinating, and the reader becomes invested.
What inspired me to write this blog post was a passage from the 1st book in the Game of Thrones saga. George R. R. Martin described a scene where a wolf pounced on a bandit trying to kidnap Bran. Summer is the wolf and Hali is one of the bandits.
“In that moment Bran saw everything. Summer was savaging Hali, pulling glistening blue snakes from her belly. Her eyes were wide and staring. Bran could not tell whether she was alive or dead.”
That’s obviously showing you what’s happening. Now let me demonstrate what the scene would be like if you were telling.
“In that moment Bran saw everything. Summer dug her muzzle into Hali’s belly and pulled out slimy pink intestines that whipped in the air. From the dead look in her eyes, Bran knew she was gone.”
Did you notice that the second example was much less impactful despite having a LITERAL description of what was happening? Sure you could sort of visualize the gross description of intestines, but you don’t really have to THINK about it. The way Martin describes his scene uses less wording and much more striking imagery.
The first thing your brain might think is, “What the hell are blue snakes doing in her stomach?” but when you THINK about it, the snakes start to take shape. Maybe you start visualizing raw sausages that have veins slithering through the meat. You start to think of its shape, its form, its color, and suddenly the snakes have become intestines. Just by thinking about that unusual description did your mind fill in the blanks. However, it is important to emphasize that this description was written with a lot of thought put behind it.
If you go overboard with the similes and metaphors that don’t fit with the world or scene, you will confuse the reader.
Then what was supposed to be a clever description ends up making the reader believe that there were literal snakes inside the stomach. Which would mean that the wolf was doing Hali a favor because who wants snakes in their stomach? I’ve committed this mistake many times in my 1st book when I described Cindy’s suit enveloping her like a chocolate banana. Needless to say, it was cringe-worthy.
Let’s do an exercise to demonstrate the power of SHOW: Pretend that you’re holding a box that has a hole cut on top of it. Only you know what’s inside but you want your friends to stick their hands in it. Obviously, you don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling them “there’s a bunch of cooked spaghetti in here.” No, you’re going to draw it out and make them squirm. You’ll say, “Well. I can’t tell you if it will bite your hand or not. It’s definitely slimy and has a kind of wormy texture to it. It’s not a snake. I wouldn’t do that to you. But it’s definitely something you don’t want to be touching.”
See where I’m going with this?
Use very specific details but don’t bog down your story with them. The most powerful and striking ones will automatically trigger the brain to fill in the picture.
Here’s how I used show vs. tell in my newest work in progress, book 3 of The Silver Ninja. (Please note this is still a rough draft and is definitely subject to change.)
SETUP: “Are you not going to tell me your name, Rubia? In case you call, I need to know who it is.” (Rubia is the equivalent of blonde and is not actually a name.)
TELL: Jadie didn’t feel the need to respond, there were other things on her mind. She turned her back towards him, walked down the hill, and drove off on her motorcycle.
SHOW: Jadie replied with a smile and empty desert footprints.
Which description made you THINK more? It’s a rhetorical question. The important part to note is this. I used fewer words to describe multiple actions and also left an air of mystery. Her replying with a smile doesn’t give you a literal answer to what she was thinking, but it gets you to think about it. You may not have been literally told that she went back to her motorcycle, but the desert footprints are more than enough to show you what happened.
Describe something specific and unique with the least amount of words possible. The reader will fill in the blanks.
All right, that’s all I have time for today. I’ve recently finished another part to The Lost Pariah and hope to be posting the next part of that story very soon. Also, I do have another short story called Apex Predator(s) coming down the pipe, but it’s stuck in editing limbo at the moment.
Will let you know when it’s ready to go!