I know, I know, this is the most repeated phrase in all of writer-dom.
But that doesn’t make it less true.
I’m reading a book right now by Whitley Strieber called The Omega Point, which I’m really enjoying. It’s a book about the 2012 prophecies, and some chapters are entries from David, the main character. One chapter starts with, “I was looking through Bartholomew Light’s book and a document fell out, and this document has, quite simply, turned me inside out. Reality is not what I thought. Not at all.”
Not bad, but how much more of an impact would it have made if the author had let us watch David leaf through the book, see the document fall out, read it along with him? If we had discovered the truth with him? It turned him inside out. But if he had shown the character being turned inside out, I would have felt what the character felt as well. As it is, there’s this distance, this lack of emotion.
I know this is a journal entry, but I still think you have to be careful to have a journal entry as well written as the book itself. Letting the character tell instead of show is kind of just an excuse to skip writing the scene well.
You can’t describe every little thing that happens in excruciating detail, but if you find yourself describing a whole complicated scene in a short paragraph, you should ask yourself, am I telling this scene or showing it as it happens?
Here’s another example: A character in a book “had never felt such terror in his life.” Okay. But what if the author had described physically what that terror felt like — the pounding heart, the faintness, the cold skin. The reader would remember a time when he felt terrified and would have tapped into that emotion from the past, and transferred some of that emotion to the book. Again, there’s a sense of immediacy, of connection to the book and the character that your reader won’t get if the author tells them the character felt something instead of showing them.
The other danger of telling instead of showing is the temptation to perform a public info dump. I read one writing blogger describe info dumps as “big steaming piles,” and that image has terrorized me ever since. Doing an info dump in my own writing is now completely embarrassing, so I guess the image worked. When you’re telling the reader what happened, it’s really easy to just keep going and going and dump a huge amount of information that either doesn’t really matter that much, or could be sprinkled throughout the book in an unfolding way that would engage the reader and make the info a discovery that illuminates the action currently taking place.
Telling is certainly easy, but think of it this way — if your friend tells you someone is a bitch, you might think, “Well, maybe she is, maybe she isn’t.” But if you see someone slashing your friend’s tires and writing nasty insults on the car windows, you’re going to come to the conclusion that this woman is a bitch with a capital B.
I’m from Missouri, the show-me state. We demand proof before we believe anything. It’s a great policy for writers as well.