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The Difference Between Showing and Telling

Guest Poster: Suzanne Hartmann

If you’ve been writing very long at all, you’ve probably been told over and over that you need to show your story, not tell it. But what does that really mean? Some say it means to add details. Others say adding action shows rather than tells. Both are true, but it’s so much more. The purpose of showing is to make the readers feel like they’re walking through the story with the characters, a part of the action. They feel everything the protagonist experiences, almost to the point of being one with that character.

Let’s work with an example to transform telling into vivid showing:

John mowed the lawn.

This is obvious telling. It is a simple statement of fact. It tells readers what John did.

Let’s add some details:

John mowed the lawn, which was full of clover and dandelion. The late afternoon sun beat down on him as he mowed back and forth.

This begins to paint a picture, but it’s still not showing. It is simply more statements telling the reader about what’s happening.

Let’s add some action:

John pushed the mower out of the garage. He swung himself into the padded seat and flicked on the ignition. He drove the mower back and forth over the lawn filled with clover and dandelion as the late afternoon sun beat down on him.

Is this showing? We’re close, but not quite there. It’s still just a list of statements telling readers what’s happening. What’s holding this back from being showing? We still don’t feel like we’re right there with John, practically in his skin, as though we are the ones doing the mowing.

Now let’s put ourselves in John’s place. Let’s feel what he feels and experience what he experiences:

John threw his weight against the expensive new lawn tractor and step by slow step shoved it out to the driveway. He swung himself into the padded seat and flicked on the ignition. The deep thrum of the motor and the buzz of the spinning blade vibrated through him.         

As he drove back and forth across the lawn, the smell of freshly-cut grass wafted on the air. The dratted clover had returned and dandelions had popped up overnight. He added weed killer to his mental shopping list.

The late afternoon sun beat down on him and he wiped the sweat trickling down his brow on the sleeve of his t-shirt. 

Now do you feel like you’re on the mower with John? Do you feel the sun beating down on you and his frustration over the weeds invading his yard? That’s what showing is!

Breaking the paragraph into smaller chunks that focus on specific aspects of John’s actions as they shift from moving the mower, to the lawn itself, to the heat, emphasizes his interaction with his surroundings, and that action helps move the story forward.

Here’s a technique that will help you to write showing scenes:

Pretend a camera sits on top of the point-of-view character’s head and a probe sticks into his mind. Only write what the character sees, hears, feels, thinks, knows, smells, tastes, remembers, or experiences. Include not just description and actions, but also use the senses and show how the character interacts with his surroundings.

When you use this camera/probe technique, however, don’t slip into narration and simply tell what’s going on around the character or give the reader a bunch of information the character knows. The character must interact with someone or something. He needs to respond to what’s going on around him, and we need to show how it affects him.

The formula for creating showing scenes:

description + action + interaction + the senses + introspection = showing

Follow this formula and you’ll be well on your way to writing showing scenes.

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Suzanne Hartmann is a homeschool mom and lives in the St. Louis area with her wonderful, supportive husband and three children. When not homeschooling or writing, she enjoys scrapbooking, reading, and Bible study. She has been writing novels since 2006, and her debut novel, PERIL: Fast Track Thriller Bk. #1, released last November from OakTara, and the sequel is scheduled to release this August.

On the editorial side, Suzanne is a contributing editor with Port Yonder Press and operates the Write This Way Critique Service. She has also written an e-book on the craft of writing, Write This Way: Take Your Writing to a New Level.

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SUZANNE’S BOOKS:

 PERIL: A Fast Track Thriller

A fast-paced suspense thriller as current as today’s news headlines.

WRITE THIS WAY: Take Your Writing to a New Level

A MAP FOR WRITING A NOVEL

AN EASY-TO-USE RESOURCE

Where you can find Suzanne on-line:

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About Jess Keller

I'm an author, speaker and chocolate eater who's chasing hard after my dreams.

2 responses »

  1. Thanks, Suzanne.(and Jessica for posting). This was just what I needed today as I work on a new book. I copied the formula, changed it to large font, printed it and hung in on the bookshelf above my computer.

    Reply

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