Showing Versus Telling
Beginning writers are often admonished, “Show, don't tell!” Unless it's writing being done to narrate a slide-show presentation or other visual presentation, this instruction can create confusion for the writer if he or she is unclear how to go about actually doing that “showing” stuff.
What's the difference between showing and telling a story?
Showing in a story merely means that you're allowing the reader to participate in the events rather than just rattling off what happened. When the reader participates, it creates involvement — he or she can see the events unfolding, and then is left wondering what is going to happen next.
If you tell the story instead of showing how the story unfolds, you risk boring the reader. And before you decide that you don't care about those readers who will get bored — after all, someone will surely find your writing spectacular, right? — remember that editors are readers, too. For that reason, the reader should always be first and foremost in your mind. To engage the reader, you need to show the story. Consider the following example of bad storytelling:
Greg went to the store. While there, he bought a gallon of milk. On his way out, he ran into his grade school teacher and spoke with her for a moment before proceeding on his way.
Not very interesting, is it? It's flat and lifeless and serves only as a grocery list (no pun intended) of what happened. Not only that, it robs you of the opportunity to involve your reader in the action and convey little bits of information about the characters in your story.
Now, see what it's like when you show the action:
Greg pulled open the door and stepped through. A slightly musty smell assaulted his nostrils as he walked into the old corner store and faced the high, cramped shelves. The scuffed floor creaked under his weight as he walked over to the ancient milk cooler. The clerk's eagle eyes never left him, giving the impression the clerk thought he might try to stuff a dusty can of peas into his coat pocket.
Greg opened the cooler and picked up a pint of milk, being careful to check the expiration date. Satisfied that it was relatively fresh, he took it up to the front counter.
As he was counting out change, the door opened. He glanced over and recognized Mrs. McGillicuddy, whom he hadn't seen since grade school, and who had barely changed a bit, despite the usual signs of aging. He smiled at her and called her by name.
She looked toward him, with a blank smile on her face. Suddenly, recognition lit her eyes. “Greg!” she exclaimed, smiling broadly.
Greg smiled back. “How on earth did you ever recognize me? It must be thirty years since I've seen you.”
The elderly lady smiled mysteriously. “I always remember my star pupils.”
Did the second version make you feel more involved? Did you find yourself transported into the small corner store? Did you find it more interesting?
While this example may not exactly be a literary masterpiece, it does serve to show you what it felt like to be in the store at that particular moment, which is something that the first example did not do. Not only that, it also raised some questions about each of the characters and probably made you want to learn more.
The power of showing serves to involve your reader and makes him or her want to participate in the story. Telling the reader what happened is about as interesting as reading a shopping list.