Mondays With Kay Springsteen
Today, I asked my writing partner and fellow editor, Kim Bowman, to take a stab at telling folks WHY showing is important. As editors, Kim and I agree that helping an author develop a good picture while preserving that author’s voice is one of our bigger challenges. Very often a writer will ask one of us, “Why should I show instead of tell?” Today, Kim’s giving us her very impressive take on that question
Let Me Tell You Something
by Kim Bowman
I want to start with a “writing exercise” of sorts to help demonstrate showing vs. telling. Here’s a line from a popular children’s book:
Now, is this showing or telling?
If you said telling, you’re wrong. Let me explain why.
The words were accompanied by a picture that engaged the reader, thus showing them the scene. Those picture books we read as children served a purpose. They “put the picture together” for us. Thus, teaching us at a young age to “visualize” when we read. And as our abilities developed, so did our desire for a deeper visual in the form of words. We want a vivid picture to be painted for us with words, not with an illustration.
For instance, take the clip art of the dog pulling the kid. How would you describe it so that the reader “gets” what you’re trying to say and can “see” the image in his/her mind’s eye?
Let me take a stab at it.
A brown dog with black spots pulled Junior down the road at a fast pace. The blond-haired Junior, dressed in a green t-shirt and blue jeans, could do nothing but stumble after the dog.
Did I put you to sleep? Did you even read through the whole thing, or did you skip it after the first three or four words? Sure, what I did helped you “visualize” a boy wearing a green shirt and blue jeans being pulled by a brown dog with black spots, but are those the most important elements in the scene? Does the color of the clothing or the dog factor in as much as how the dog is acting and how it makes the boy feel? Is the reader able to connect with the character(s) if they aren’t motivated to care with some sort of emotion being stirred and/or if the five senses aren’t stimulated? It’s about picking the parts to write that will draw the reader in. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t describe the physical elements. Those are important too. The trick is to be creative with them.
So keeping those things in mind, let me try to describe the scene again.
Terror coursed through Junior’s veins, instinct forcing him to tighten his death grip on the leash of the runaway mutt rather than letting go. Sweat beaded on his brow, pasting his blond hair to the side of his head. Junior’s wild eyes searched frantically for help as the brown ball of fur ran haphazardly down the middle of the road, tongue whipping in the breeze, a smile seeming to frame his mongrel face. The more Junior pulled on the leash, the faster the dog ran.
How much better adding a little emotion and some sensory makes the description. The biggest difference is that in the first example, I’m telling the reader what’s going on, but in the second one, I’m showing them his fear, his panic. Sure, I’m describing in both, but in the first, I’m not engaging the reader. They “see” a brown dog with black spots pulling a blond boy wearing a green shirt and blue jeans down the road. But they don’t feel it.
And that’s really the difference between showing and telling. In the second one, I gave few physical descriptions. As a matter of fact, the only ones I mentioned were, blond hair, boy, brown dog, but the reader is vested in what happens next. They want to know if the boy stops the dog or if someone comes to his aid. Why? Because I showed them something they could relate to—emotion. The boy’s fear becomes real and they relate to it, so they want to know what happens next. And if they want to know what happens next, they’ll keep reading! And that’s the whole idea of why we show rather than tell when writing fiction.
Kim is the author of a novella, Wayward Soul, and she is on the editorial staff at two different publishing houses.