By Margaret Lucke
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
-- Anton Chekhov
"Show, don't tell." Fiction writers hear this instruction so often that it begins to sound like one of those stuffy old rules that just beg to broken. Like so much advice that gets crammed into a few pithy words, it's easy to forget what it really means and why it's important.
Show, don't tell is a shorthand reminder of the fundamental difference between nonfiction and fiction, which is this:
The purpose of nonfiction is to provide the reader with information.
The purpose of fiction is to provide the reader with an experience--
and the more vivid and emotionally engaging that experience is, the better.
Telling, in other words, refers to laying out information on the page. Useful sometimes, but not so much in fiction where in large or even medium-sized doses, information gets boring pretty quickly. That offers the reader an excuse to put the book down. That's the opposite of what you want them to do.
Showing refers to the collection of techniques you can use when you're trying to pull the reader into the world of your story and have them share what the characters are going through. Here are three of those techniques.
1. Tell the story in scenes.
A scene is a unit of action, a mini-story. It depicts what characters do in one place and at one time during the story. Instead of saying, "Julie went to the corner store to buy milk. While she was there someone held up the cashier at gunpoint," put us inside the store. Make us feel the rush of cold air when Julie takes the milk out of the cooler. Let us see the robber's gun and red tennis shoes. Have us hear the screams of the other customers. That way, we're eyewitnesses to the drama.
2. Use vivid sensory details.
When someone says, "Show me," we think they mean "Let me see." Fiction readers want more than to see. They want to hear, smell, and taste what's going on around them in the world of the story. They want to feel textures and temperatures. Showing involves not just sight, but all five senses. Showing also is specific rather than generic. Let your character eat pancakes rather than breakfast, or tiptoe through the tulips rather than unnamed flowers.
3. Keep the story moving forward.
Your reader's goal is to find out what happens next. When you insert long passages of exposition, whether you're cataloguing every item your character sees in the room she's just entered or providing backstory that you think it's essential for the reader to know, you're hitting the pause button on the story and giving your reader an opportunity to disengage. Showing means using the gravy approach to fiction writing--mixing in the exposition so that it isn't in lumps but blends smoothly with the action. For an example of how to do this well, take a look at any of the Leadville, Colorado, mysteries by my fellow LadyKiller Ann Parker.
One more reason to show, not tell: writing that way is a lot more fun.