Yes, But Why?

Show, don’t tell.

It’s been hammered into our brains through every English class, creative writing course, and book for aspiring novelists. Always they tell us “show, don’t tell” until we can’t unhear or forget the words. Until they become mere sounds and we discount them due to familiarity. Like when someone says “eat healthy” or “Jesus loves you.” Sometimes we hear things so much they no longer really register.

Show, don”t tell, we hear. And sometimes we just have to stop and say, “Yes… but why?”

I’ve been delving into this as I work on edits for the fourth book in my series, Firmament: Reversal Zone. So many times I catch myself merely saying, “He looked angry” instead of describing the tilt of his eyebrows, the veins in his neck, or the slight clench of his fists. Or I realize that instead of explaining that there was a slight shift in the vibrations under Andi’s feet as she stands on the deck and watches the stars come into focus as pinpoints of light rather than long, indistinguishable spears, I say that “the ship stopped.”

But why is the more detailed approach better? Of course, there are situations where telling is acceptable. For instance, the reader is probably fine hearing that Andi ran down the hall, they probably don’t need to know what the floor felt like, what doors she passed, and how many meters she ran. At least, not usually. Because usually, it doesn’t make any difference to the story. But when it comes to emotions and to placing the reader in the scene, in the world, with the characters–I have to keep reminding myself not to skimp on the sensory input descriptions.

Again, though… why? Situational judgment calls aside, showing is better than telling because telling (he was angry) produces, at best, a very generic image in the reader’s mind. Whereas showing (his fists slowly clenched, the motion mimicking the downward tilt of his eyebrows and the gradual bulge of the veins in his neck) gives the reader a clear mental image. You’ve given them the movie in their mind, all they have to do is push play.

That’s what it comes down to. Giving the reader exactly what you want them to see. Don’t leave them hanging, don’t say “there was a look of sadness on her face.” A look of sadness is not something we can visualize… a single tear rolling down a flushed cheek is. A vacancy behind her eyes is. A head tilted down as she refuses to make eye contact is. What are you trying to communicate? Show us. Don’t tell us.

That’s why.

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