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I read a lot of fiction. It’s my jam. I read for fun, mostly. But, I also read simply because I love books and stories and experiencing them. I love how I can learn about a culture or a place by reading well-researched fiction.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But I do read some.
Because I’m a writer and an editor. I need to continually learn more about the craft of writing. This helps my own writing and helps me be a better editor for my authors.
All of this is to say that I was recently reading an article by Jack M. Bickham (an author of over 80 novels!) and I fell in love with this quote:
“Fiction can only involve and convince and excite readers if it lets them experience the story world the way they experience real life: by taking in stimuli and drawing their own conclusions.” – Jack M. Bickham, “Mastering Fiction’s First Rule”, in The Complete Handbook to Novel Writing
What does “show don’t tell” really mean?
The advice “show don’t tell” is all about letting your reader experience the story’s world. It’s about sharing the character’s thoughts, feelings, and everything they take in with their senses so the reader can experience it with them. It brings the story to a place where the reader can fully experience it in their imagination.
To make your fiction an participatory for your reader you need to allow them to experience the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and textures of the character’s life. Rather than stating that “it was a cold and stormy night” write about how your character wraps their sweater tighter or zips up their coat to their chin, how they hear the wind rattling the loose fence boards that they keep forgetting to fix. Bickham also writes about the dominant impression – what is the first thing the character notices upon entering a new place. What do they notice first? This can be helpful for giving the clues a reader needs to be able to fully imagine a scene.
Showing instead of telling will do a few things for your writing:
- It will limit your point of view (POV). Everything you show should be shown from the POV character’s unique perspective.
- It will lengthen your text. It takes a lot more words to show instead of tell.
- It will make your writing much more enjoyable for your readers. Someone telling you a bunch of facts is called a lecture. Lectures are boring and not memorable. They are a passive act for the listener/reader.
Showing your readers the character’s experience will allow them to make their own conclusions. It’s an invitation for the reader to join in the story. And, it is an act of trust. You must trust that your reader will take the evidence you provide and come to the right conclusions.
stating the facts of the story to the reader
sharing the POV character’s feelings and senses
so the reader can experience the story with the character
The difference between showing and telling is the difference between a lecture and a conversational experience. Readers get to be a part of the story when it is shown.