SHOWING not TELLING
“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers … are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.” William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style.
In regard to the second epiphany from the Writers’ Fest I attended recently, I wanted to now focus on how the established author discussed the Show not Tell style of narration.
In her talk entitled, “Creating Believable Fiction,” she outlined a number of ways that help us writers reveal details that elicit an emotional response from our readers.
Taking into account sensory experience is the main ingredient.
Following the advice of fiction writer Robert Olen Butler, we were told that if we want our readers to feel something in a scene that is unfolding, we basically need to feel it too.
In order to feel, emotional react and respond, we must write in such a way as to appeal to such things as “reactions inside” and “outside of our body”, drawing on “flashes of the past” (something that triggers a memory in order to relate to what the character is currently experiencing, i.e. a smell in a kitchen conjuring up childhood memories), “flashes of the future” (suggesting something anticipated, desired), and “sensual selectivity.”
As Butler reveals, “sensual selectivity” has to do with how in the midst of many sensory cues in a scene, only a select few create what is needed for the reader to feel.
Less is more. Showing is better than Telling. The author went on to explore these aspects in terms of character and action and how concrete details can achieve this.
The author clarified the difference between significant detail conveying “an idea or judgement or both,” or, concrete detail as appealing “to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.”
One fault I tend to have in my writing is that I paint a scene where I force the reader to be removed from the action. Instead of having Mary go to the window and watch the rain, I may write,
“She decided to get up. Rising, she moved slowly across the floor to the window. Once there, she looked out…”
My reader now has to watch Mary get up, see her move across the floor and then, wait until she is looking out the window before they see what she sees. Better yet would be,
“Mary dragged herself to the window and looked out at the rain.”
Concrete details are better suited to fiction writing if we want to allow the reader to experience everything simultaneously with the characters themselves. It also allows the reader to “generalize and interpret,” on their own and thus, be more “involved as participants in a real way. ”
By having Mary drag herself, the sense is generated that she is fatigued or sad and yet still decides to move. Immediately, the reader is intrigued as to why she is feeling this way. I must learn to write more direct like this and allow the reader to engage in the scene rather than simply observe.
Being direct, showing not merely telling, using concrete descriptive detail is how our fiction can explode off the page and into the minds of our audience.
After all, if we can’t get that done, there’s always another book to be read by someone else.