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Deadly Don’t #7 ~ Telling vs. Showing [Fiction]

This writing advice is so common it’s become a cliché, but I’m no longer surprised to discover that many people don’t know the difference between showing and telling. Let’s clear this up once and for all. And let me state up front that this applies to both fiction and nonfiction. Good nonfiction will have storytelling passages that bring the message to life, woven all throughout.

Good writing is vivid writing, and if you start to pay attention you’ll notice that the best writers—and the best books, the ones that stand the test of time—all have vivid writing. Writing that shows is what I call “writing with all five senses.” Think of it this way: as you read along in the book, you can see the action taking place on the “silver screen” of your mind. It’s like watching a movie unfold. The writer paints scenes in such a way that you are there with the characters (if fiction); the same can be true for nonfiction prose.

For fiction writing, this means you make the characters do the work. Make them take action. Make them speak to describe things, places, weather, whatever. Make them speak to cause action—threaten, cajole, entice, etc. Make your characters work and you’ll eliminate the narrative telling.

First let’s look at some powerful, vivid writing that involves the five senses so you get a feel for what we’re talking about. Count how many of the senses you experience as you read through the following excerpts—every word or phrase that has to do with seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or tasting.

EXCERPT 1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

(Scene: Lucy and her siblings are looking through the Professor’s old house when she happens upon a huge wardrobe.)

“Nothing there!” said Peter, and they all trooped out again—all except Lucy. She stayed behind because she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure that it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two mothballs dropped out.

Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up—mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in—then two or three steps—always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it.

This must be a simply enormous wardrobe! thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. I wonder is that more mothballs? she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold…

Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at nighttime with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.[1]

If you’re like me, you found yourself right in the action with Lucy; you could feel the fur coats brush against your cheeks, the branches scratching at your hands and face as the wardrobe contents gave way to a winter wood at night.

Consider how Lewis might have written this scene, telling instead of showing:

Lucy stayed behind to explore the wardrobe after the others had moved on to the next room. Curious, she opened the door and stepped inside, finding it filled with winter coats.

A second row of coats hung behind the first row, and she kept moving forward until she found herself standing in a snowy winter wood at night.

EXCERPT 2: Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon

(Scene: two young boys dare each other to climb the water tower in their Southern hometown on a muggy summer night.)

The fear set into his gut the minute he climbed out Nanny Howard’s window on Salem Street; as his feet hit the ground, he broke into a cold sweat. He stood behind bushes a moment, queasy and stupefied. Then he slipped across the yard and down the bank, and raced along the silent, moonlit street like a field hare. Something small and glowing, perhaps the tip of a lighted cigarette, arced through the air as he blew by the darkened houses. His heart hammered, but he saw no one and didn’t hang back.

Two dogs barked. The flashlight he carried in the pocket of his shorts banged against his leg; he took it from his pocket and held it tight. If a dog came after him, he would knock it on the head; if he was bitten, he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

He arrived at the tank, drenched with sweat and scared out of his mind that Tommy would suddenly appear from the bushes, causing him to lose it right there. In the light of the three-quarter moon, he saw Tommy; his face was as white as death. “I’m scared,” said Tommy. “Don’ worry, ain’t nobody gon’ see us.” He was shaking so badly he dropped the flashlight, and had to fumble in the parched grass to find it….

Something like an electrical current shot through him when he touched the metal rung of the ladder. He drew back, then touched it again. The jolt hadn’t come from special wiring to keep people from climbing to the top and writing that word; it had come from an excitement like he’d never known.[2]

Try your hand at reverse-engineering this passage to tell instead of show the action.

EXCERPT 3: Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

[Scene: Boy-hero Tom and Becky Thatcher, his crush, explore a cave together during a school picnic. The day swells with excitement until the two realize they are lost underground.]

[Tom and Becky] wandered down a sinuous avenue holding their candles aloft and reading the tangled web-work of names, dates, post-office addresses, and mottoes with which the rocky walls had been frescoed (in candle-smoke).

Still drifting along and talking, they scarcely noticed that they were now in a part of the cave whose walls were not frescoed. They smoked their own names under an overhanging shelf and moved on….

They wound this way and that, far down into the secret depths of the cave, made another mark, and branched off in search of novelties to tell the upper world about….

Under the roof vast knots of bats had packed themselves together, thousands in a bunch; the lights disturbed the creatures and they came flocking down by the hundreds, squeaking and darting furiously at the candles. Tom knew their ways and hurried her into the first corridor that offered; and none too soon, for a bat struck Becky’s light out with its wing while she was passing out of the cavern. The bats chased the children a good distance; but the fugitives plunged into every new passage that offered, and at last got rid of the perilous things.

Tom found a subterranean lake, shortly, which stretched its dim length away until its shape was lost in the shadows. He wanted to explore its borders, but concluded that it would be best to sit down and rest awhile, first. Now, for the first time, the deep stillness of the place laid a clammy hand upon the spirits of the children. Becky said:

“Why, I didn’t notice, but it seems ever so long since I heard any of the others.”

“Come to think, Becky, we are away down below them—and I don’t know how far away north, or south, or east, or whichever it is. We couldn’t hear them here.”

Becky grew apprehensive.

“I wonder how long we’ve been down here, Tom? We better start back.”

“Yes, I reckon we better. P’raps we better.”

“Can you find the way, Tom? It’s all a mixed-up crookedness to me.”

“I reckon I could find it—but then the bats. If they put our candles out it will be an awful fix. Let’s try some other way, so as not to go through there.”

“Well. But I hope we won’t get lost. It would be so awful!” and the girl shuddered at the thought of the dreadful possibilities.

They started through a corridor, and traversed it in silence a long way, glancing at each new opening, to see if there was anything familiar about the look of it; but they were all strange….

He felt less and less hopeful with each failure, and presently began to turn off into diverging avenues at sheer random, in desperate hope of finding the one that was wanted….

“Oh, Tom, never mind the bats, let’s go back that way! We seem to get worse and worse off all the time.”

“Listen!” said he.

Profound silence; silence so deep that even their breathings were conspicuous in the hush. Tom shouted. The call went echoing down the empty aisles and died out in the distance in a faint sound that resembled a ripple of mocking laughter.

“Oh, don’t do it again, Tom, it is too horrid,” said Becky.

“It is horrid, but I better, Becky; they might hear us, you know,” and he shouted again.

The “might” was even a chillier horror than the ghostly laughter, it so confessed a perishing hope. The children stood still and listened; but there was no result. Tom turned upon the back track at once, and hurried his steps. It was but a little while before a certain indecision in his manner revealed another fearful fact to Becky—he could not find his way back!

I read Tom Sawyer in early adolescence and later saw the movie, but to this day the vividness of that scene in the cave—the one I read in the book—still clutches at my chest as if I were there right alongside Tom and Becky, hoping to find a way out, a way back into the light.

Divine Do: Learn to show, not tell.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1950). [2] Jan Karon, Home to Holly Springs (New York: Viking, 2007).

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