Writing 101: Show, Don't Tell
The Art of Contextual Weight
One thing that lots of writers struggle with is what’s often referred to as “showing, not telling.”
Even the most experienced authors may slip up at times and take the easy way out - using words to inform the reader how a character supposedly feels. After all, it is a lot simpler to write “She was sad,” rather than to exhibit that through implicit writing - “a hard knot twisted in the pit of her stomach as she stood there, and it grew and grew until it filled her whole body. It crawled up her throat and into her chest, out through her arms and into her fingers. Breathing got hard. She closed her eyes, biting down into her lip hard enough to draw blood, desperate to keep the tears back.” Option number two takes a bit more creativity, but it’s a lot more effective. It had a way of putting the reader there with the character, forcing them to look at them and glean the emotion and the internal conflict from what they see, rather than just being told.
Instead of telling the reader that the character is sad, a writer needs to show them that they are. Great writing can be as much about what’s not said as it is about what is. This is what describing without words is all about.
Incorporating Wordless Descriptions in Your Work
Everyone can do it - it doesn’t have to be difficult, but it can take some practice and some time to get used to. What you’ll ultimately want to achieve is the creation of a door. Make it so the reader has the ability to step into your world, to live the story with your characters, and to experience what they experience through the events, dialogue, emotion, and sentiments, rather than just telling the reader exactly what you mean for them to feel and understand.
If I told you, right now - I’m happy, or I’m laughing, then the effect is pitiful. But, if you see me smile, or hear me laugh, then that’s infectious - filling, even. You’ll smile with me, laugh with me, languish in that feeling with me. And our writing is the same. Let your tale tell itself in a way that allows readers to impress themselves upon the story.
A good rule to keep this in check is, when you’re describing a scene, to think about what the reader will see. That’s what you’re showing them - what’s happening. How are people standing? What do their faces look like? A crumpled brow will show confusion. A set of gritted teeth will show annoyance. A clenched fist will show anger. A hung head or red cheeks will show shame. Readers need to be able to work things out. Don’t spoon feed them. Let them be a part of the story. Let the story flow as real life would. Don’t stop to explain things if you can help it. Let the illusion ride. Let your characters behave and look as people do, and let the reader use the skills they use in real life to determine semantic understanding in your book as well.
Why You Want to Do This
It’s often tempting, as a writer, to give the reader the information that we want them to have, because we want to make sure they get exactly what we’re going for. But, art is weird. It’s not up to us how someone else perceives our work. Whether they think our hero is as benevolent as we do, or whether our villains are as unjust as we make them out to be. It’s just like with a song or a painting – everyone who hears it or looks at it gets something different out of it, depending on their own personality and their experiences. So, what you want to do is to give the reader the tools they need to understand your piece, but not force your own insight on them. Robbing someone of the pleasure of their own point of view isn’t going to do you any favours.
Taking It Too Far
The art of “showing” should not be confused with a requirement to describe (in detail) everything that happens in the story. It’s not relevant for the reader to follow a character’s every movement, facial expression, or thought. There’d be no enjoyment if your story was them walking to the fridge, taking out a carton of juice, unscrewing it, sniffing it, squinting into the carton, tightening the top, shaking it, taking it off again, pouring it into a glass, taking a sip, pausing, taking another sip… You get the idea. Heck, it’s boring when it’s abbreviated like this. Imagine how it would feel in the middle of a novel. No, this isn’t what ‘showing’ is about.
It’s pretty easy to cross that line without realising, and start over explaining (or overwriting, which we’ll come to), so always keep in mind that you only want descriptions that move the story forward. Always think ‘plot’ or ‘character’. If it adds to neither, then what’s it doing in your story? And, of course swap out anything that starts with “He/she felt” and instead describe what outward manifestations of that feeling are visible, or what was going through their head at that point. Often, internal thought can implicitly translate to physical actions without us even realising. Internal dialogue that shows off disdain, disgust, or other powerful emotions can often give the reader more than enough information to paint a clear picture. “Sam opened the door and recoiled. Jeez, that smells like rotten meat!” Despite only having the word ‘recoiled’ to give us a sense of movement, that internal thought will definitely have the reader picturing a look of disgust on the character’s face, whether it’s written or not.
Doing more with less is an important goal to keep in your mind when writing, and describing the manifestation of a feeling is a better way to place the reader in the character’s shoes than simply informing the reader of how they feel. You want to put your readers in your scenes, alongside your characters, so they can see what they see, and feel what they feel. And, most importantly, always be bold with your leaps. Let the story speak for itself. Push yourself and keep it creative!