Storytelling is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not about recounting events. We tell people about things that have happened, but to be truly engaging on the page, we need to bring the reader into the experience. Most new writers tell a story as though they’re talking to someone at a coffee shop. The goal, though, is to bring the reader into your body, so they feel what you felt, see what you saw, hear what you heard, etc.
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
I read somewhere that I should include an embarrassing story in my bio to humanize me (I don’t think my accomplishments are so grand that I need to prove I have clay feet, but whatever… )
One morning last spring, I woke up to find a spider on my pillow. I scrambled to find a piece of card stock, ushered the spider onto it, and raced out the front door to deposit the spider in the garden. It was when I heard my neighbor’s car start that I realized I was only wearing a t-shirt.
Here are the pieces of information in that story:
- I live in a place where spiders sometimes get in
- I’m not the type of person who kills spiders, but I do get freaked out by them
- I live in a house (“front door”), or at least part of a house, with a garden
- I live in a slightly suburban neighbourhood (I have neighbours who have cars. The street is quiet enough that a car starting is a noticable event)
- I care more about not harming spiders—and about getting them out of the house—than I do about appearances
- I am, at times, oblivious to my surroundings (not thinking about appropriate clothing), especially first thing in the morning
- The night before this story, I slept in a t-shirt (which conveys a bit about my personality, and personal style, or lack thereof)
If I’d written that list of information, a reader might well wonder why—and would’ve been bored by the second sentence. I could have gone deeper, into the fragrance of the early morning flowers, or the juxtaposition of adrenalin and sleepiness, but this wasn’t a pivotal life moment. Hopefully, the reader experiences the embarrassment I felt in that moment, at the same moment it arose in me—without my having add, “I was so embarrassed!”
Choosing What to Show and What to Tell
You don’t need to show everything—to use a film analogy, think of “showing” as zooming in on a scene and “telling” as a shortcut to the next scene. Or, to use a Buddhist metaphor, think of your story as a mala—each bead is a scene you show, and the moments of telling are the thread that connects them.
Showing also takes more time (and words) than telling, so it’s helpful to choose in advance which scenes you’re going to show.
Think about when a friend asks, “How was your day?” You don’t say, “I hit the snooze button, then pulled up the sheets—this week, they’re the flannel ones with snowflakes. Blue flannel, but not royal blue, more like winter-sky blue…” or “I picked the keys up off the kitchen table—which, by the way, is covered with a cute checkerboard farmhouse-style red and white tablecloth, and I could still smell the fried eggs we had for breakfast—and then remembered I had to feed the cat.” By that point, your friend is probably half asleep and wishing she had your flannel sheets.
Instead, you bring forth the most important events of the day, the things are most relevant to your story and that stand out from your routine. Similarly, the best scenes are ones that illustrate ‘watershed’ moments. If you’re not writing about yourself, these might be anecdotes, case studies, or examples that bring to life the topic at hand. Personal moments are always more resonant, though, so when possible, use those.
There’s a reason we call certain events “turning points.” These are times when life throws us a plot twist (which, admittedly, is much of life). The story shifts at those moments, curves to the left or takes a detour to the right. The turning points that are relevant to your story should always be shown.
Sometimes an author will ‘tell’ about significant moments, and then randomly ’show’ less important events. Which brings me to…
Why People Tell, Instead of Showing
Many new writers tell simply because they’ve never been told otherwise. They recount events as though recapping a hockey game (“And then this happened, and this…”).
The other biggest reason people is that they’re afraid of being judged. People often race through scenes that are delicate or personal—let’s say, a sex scene or a spiritual epiphany—because it’s scary to share that deep, intimate information with a reader who might judge you. But by telling, you’re depriving the reader of the experience. Presumably you’re writing about something because you want to share the experience. So share it. Go deep. Take the plunge.
Being a resonant storyteller is about sharing your vulnerability, your human-ness. Telling can come across as withholding to the reader, like a friend who wants to give you lots of advice but never shares her own challenging experiences. The more authentic vulnerability you bring onto the page, the more your writing will resonate with readers.
Some writers ‘tell’ because, on a subconscious level, they feel insecure about taking up too much of the reader’s time (which, in turn, often corresponds to a hesitation to claim one’s space in the world, but that’s a whole other topic). Showing a scene can take three pages, whereas telling it only might only take a sentence or two. The difference is that showing is exponentially more engaging, so if it’s done well, the reader isn’t likely to notice that it takes up more space. And sometimes, as we’ll see, showing can be done in a single sentence.
You Probably Already Know the Difference
I have yet to work with an author who didn’t show at least occasionally. One client ‘told’ many things in her 360-page draft, yet she casually slipped in a sentence about how her ex-husband had told her she couldn’t have friends outside the marriage. That single sentence showed me more than pages and pages about how controlling and abusive he was.
Where we show tend to be the places we’re most comfortable, where we’ve been in flow and the ego hasn’t piped up to restrict us by saying, “But what will people think of meeeee?!”
First Drafts are Usually Telling
When I write an essay, it’s rare that it flows out with beautiful, evocative language. The first draft is almost always a summary of what happened. Then I go back and shift the language to bring the reader into the experience.
Don’t worry if your first draft, or even your fifth, is still in ‘telling’ mode. The benefit of writing in telling-mode first is that you can go back and select which scenes and moments you want to bring forth through showing. This is particularly true for those of us who need to write out all our ideas before choosing where to focus.
There’s Such a Thing as Showing Too Much
A small percentage of writers are natural show-ers. What I find with this group—and I’m among them—is that we show every detail because we have trouble deciding which ones are most important. (In my anecdotal experience, this is more common among those of us with ADHD and/or on the autism spectrum, because we are nothing if not thorough.)
The thing is, we’re aiming to draw readers into the experience. Readers don’t need every detail, and some readers are likely to become overwhelmed by too many details. They get lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. Think back to the flannel sheets description earlier in this post.
The good news is that “over-showing” is a fantastic “problem” to have. As a writer, that gives you an abundance of riches to choose from.
If you have a tendency to over-show, it can help to prepare an outline. Make a list of the scenes you want to include—the most relevant scenes. Then connect those scenes with a few sentences that ‘tell’ what happened in the interim.
Exercise: How to Show
Showing involves using all the senses, including somatic, as well as characterization, action and dialogue. The goal is to bring the reader inside your body, so they’re experiencing the world as you.
Although this can be adapted to everything from business to historical biography, for the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to use personal experience. Choose a pivotal moment in your life, one that later turned out to be a turning point.
- Close your eyes and watch the scene as if it were happening in this moment.
- What do you see? Smell? Hear? Bring us into your environment. (Add taste and touch if they’re relevant)
- What thoughts are going through your mind?
- What are you feeling emotionally?
- What does your body feel like?
- Who else is there?
- What are you doing, physically? What are other people doing?
- How does the conversation unfold?
- How did the various people involved reveal their personalities through dialogue or action?
Don’t tell us, for example, that you felt out of place (or in love, or trembling with rage). Show us the context that evoked that experience in you. If you recreate it well, the reader will feel it, too.
Photo: Jakob Owens/Unsplash
Fabulous piece Sarah … this is a good piece for me to read right now ….words are brewing …. images are forming …stay tuned!! Thanks for this. ~sarah
This post is perfect timing for me. I’m struggling to write a personal scene where I made a turning point decision. I already had my rough draft, and going through this exercise gave me the direction to pull my reader into the story.
You are right, it is vulnerable to lay it bare, but I wan’t to resonate with my readers, not put them to sleep.
BTW-love the photo, I want to go there!
Hi Jennifer! It can be so scary to be vulnerable. Yet we all carry so much that’s unspoken inside; when we bring that onto the page, it gives readers the chance to go “me too!” (one of the most healing phrases in the English language). You never know who you might inspire–you’ll likely have readers who are at a similar turning point, and your writing might give them the courage to take the next step, or to get through a given situation. (I love the photo, too, though I can’t take credit for it. Looks fun, though, doesn’t it?)