Anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer has heard the cardinal rule of fiction: show, don’t tell. Based on manuscripts I receive, particularly from writers previously published in nonfiction, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about what that means.
But it’s obvious, you say. It means you should write active scenes, in which people are doing things, not “recite” the story as if you were sitting around a campfire. And, as far as that goes, that’s correct. What some people are missing, however, is that “show, don’t tell” isn’t a narrative issue but rather one of point of view.
In order to properly show your story, you must be in the active character’s point of view. This means getting to know those characters well, the method for which will be a good topic for the future. For now, suffice to say that if you aren’t fully engaged with your POV character no matter how much action you put in your narrative it will be telling, not showing.
Let me give an example of an opening paragraph:
John drove down the narrow street looking for the house. He had been sure he would recognize it, even after all this time, but he hadn’t expected the old neighborhood would have become a candidate for suburban renewal, the old Craftsman houses collectors items for Baby Boomers nostalgic for childhoods they may not even have had. Now, as dusk settled, he wondered why he was even here. He had traveled two thousand miles, spent more than he should on airline tickets and car rental, and he still didn’t know why he was here.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, on the surface. Let’s try again:
As he strained to read the numbers on the houses in the gathering dusk, John told himself he was a fool for coming here. What did he hope to gain? And what had made him think he would find the old place just as it was when he’d left it?
The difference between the first paragraph and the second is two-fold. First, the second paragraph has what the first lacks—a hook to grab the browsing reader’s attention and make them read on. Who is John? Why is he here? Second—and I grant you it’s a subtlety beginners are likely to miss—the second paragraph is totally in John’s point of view. It’s showing. In the first paragraph, we’re being told what John is doing and what he’s thinking.
Let’s go on to that second paragraph. Should we explain what John is doing?
Streetlights came on, and he realized the house numbers were painted on the curb, just faded enough he hadn’t seen them in the near-dark. There it was, 346 Carleton Street, a small house on a narrow street that had once looked like all the small houses around it. Even now, fancied up by some nostalgic Baby Boomer looking for a childhood they’d probably never actually had, there was nothing to show why he had dropped half his savings account on plane tickets and car rental and traveled two thousand miles to see it.
How is this description of backstory different from the first paragraph?
- It doesn’t use tags like “he wondered.” If you’re writing securely in your character’s point of view, you don’t need to tell us he or she “thought” or “wondered” or “he saw.” That’s a given—we’re in his or her head. The moment you use one of those qualifiers you’re telling us what he or she is thinking or seeing.
- It’s in the character’s voice instead of the author’s. It’s John who “dropped half his savings” instead of the author telling us he had “spent more than he should.”
Learning how to let your characters speak and act for themselves in one of the hardest things for a beginning writer simply because the dividing line between showing and telling is so narrow. You need to train yourself to recognize the difference. Watching out for those telltales—the “he wondereds” and the “she noticeds” will help; but the true trick is to close the distance between you as writer and the characters you create to tell your story. You need to know them well enough that living inside their heads becomes as natural as being inside your own. They have to be living, breathing human beings (or aliens, as the case may be).
One often suggested trick if you’re having trouble with this is to write your first draft in first-person. That forces you to identify with your POV character, to think with his/her mind and to act with his/her body. Try it—and watch how often you discover yourself writing “I wondered.” Then stop.