I mentioned previously that world building could be used to enhance your story beyond its face value, and through world building the best advice I could give was ‘show don’t tell’. Well I just want to elaborate on that specific phrase and tell you all what it means. At least in my own words.
‘Show don’t tell’ is something we hear very often in the writing community, and it is never adequately explained. At least, it never seems to be. I didn’t get a good explanation of it until my fourth writing class in college.
That teacher told me to let the actions speak for themselves. Don’t flood your reader with information. As I said before it is all about bite sized samples; this mentality applies to most things when it comes to writing. Never convey everything at once. Drop hints; let the reader struggle with the ideas. The reveal will be all the more sweet when it comes after mentally wrestling with the text for a while.
So to properly explain what the phrase means, let us break it down; show is simply just that, offering a lens for your readers. A portal which they can view the characters and settings and world building you provide in your piece. Think of it as just dropping a camera down into the scene you wish to write about, and simply writing it as it is.
The man walked home from the market, he was humming a small tune under his breath. There was a skip to his step, a little hop with each forward motion he took. He held two brown paper bags in either hand, his calloused fingers gripping their edges firmly against his sides. A golden engagement ring with a tiny diamond glimmered upon his left hand. He dug his keys out from his pants pocket, and jammed them into the door. With a smile he disappeared into the little red building at the corner.
What can you tell me about this scene?
A lot, hopefully. The man is clearly happy, and I didn’t explicitly tell the reader he was happy, or the reason why. Does the man not have a car? Does he live in a time period without cars? Perhaps he can’t afford one? He might be choosing to walk to the market, but why would he do that? Until we are told these things outright we should be asking these kinds of questions. He has the keys to a building. Is it his house? A studio? An apartment? All we truly know is it’s just a building. We don’t even know what is made out of.
So we already have questions forming in our minds. That’s good. That is the goal of showing.
Now let us examine the term tell. Telling is tied to the term exposition. Exposition is the background information that exists in the story; the backstory, the historical context, just everything that isn’t done in dramatic scene or narrative. Telling is basically all the reasons why events happen in a story, and having the writer simply tell those events as if they are being read off bullet points.
The man walked home from the market, it was very busy that day because a group of traveling entertainers from Europe were visiting. The man hummed a small tune under his breath, he was very happy because he was just recently engaged to his beautiful girlfriend. He held two brown paper bags in either hand, his calloused fingers gripping their edges firmly against his sides. Inside the bags were carrots and milk. His fiance needed these things to cook a proper dinner. A golden engagement ring with a tiny diamond glimmered upon his left hand. It cost him a fortune. It took several years of saving up before he could afford a pair of them to propose to her. He dug his keys out from his pants pocket, and jammed them into the door of his apartment. With a smile he disappeared into the little red building at the corner. It was made out of bricks, and the rent was cheap enough for the two of them to afford. It pleased him.
This example may be a bit silly, and over the top, but that is done for effect. I want to clearly demonstrate what I am driving at here. The example above provides no room for interpretation, or asking questions. It makes the process of reading the piece wooden and hallow. Your readers should want the questions to be answered, but you don’t want to answer them too soon. It’s all about build ups and payoffs.
Don’t get me wrong, the goal here isn’t to show everything and tell nothing. It is about striking a balance between the two. People mistake that very often. They remove all exposition and telling from their narratives to a point of the fault. They call it minimalism, I call it having too many questions and no pay off.
The goal is to spark curiosity in your reader, and give them enough information to allow the piece to resonate, so they are driven to continue reading. Your piece should be a journey not only for you as a writer, but for your reader as well.
C. A. Guillory