How to Write Like You Speak with Showing Rather than Telling
A lot of English teachers have repeated, “Don’t write the way you speak!” That’s good advice when you’re learning how to write grammatically, but it’s terrible advice when you want to tell an engaging story. Over the years, I have seen text written by many people who clearly had that maxim drilled into their heads from an early age. They get scared, so they stick to writing dull, factual sentences that sound like a dry police report—just the facts, ma’am—instead of a compelling narrative. To truly engage your reader, however, you need to write like you speak—or at least the way you would tell a story to a friend—by describing (showing), with details, rather than just reporting (telling). When showing, for example, you wouldn’t say that a character was upset. Instead, you would show what happens when the character is upset: Does his or her voice change pitch? Does he/she flush or pale? Does the character shake?
When you think of showing, you might think only of visual cues, as you might see in a movie. When editors ask authors to “show,” however, they are asking authors to describe based on any and all senses—sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, as well as emotions. For example, you might describe not just how a piece of fruit looks but also how it smells, or how it tastes on the character’s tongue—things that can’t be seen.
In case you’re not quite sure of the difference between text that tells and text that shows, let’s look at a few examples.
Telling: Finally, I made it out of there. I was relieved.
Showing: Finally, I made it out of there, nearly crying with relief as I clasped my husband’s arm with both my hands.
Telling: I was tired, but I wanted to be by my husband, for the sheer comfort. He set me down in a chair and walked off to supply the pharmacist with information, leaving me miserable and alone.
Showing: I was tired, but I wanted to be by my husband, for the sheer comfort. I didn’t want to be alone in my dejection, my misery. I was doing everything I could to simply exist in the moment, to not think about my diagnosis, to just be. My husband set me down in a chair and walked off to supply the pharmacist with information.
Telling: People came and went.
Showing: People ebbed and flowed around me; children muttered; people ran into my shoes.
Telling: I couldn’t see my husband. Because of my limited vision, I could not distinguish him from the strangers around me.
Showing: I strained to see my husband, but anything beyond my knees was shrouded in nearly impenetrable darkness. … I could see only a hazy glow with shadows occasionally moving within it. I could not distinguish him from the strangers surrounding me.
Telling: Even now, seven months later, when I think about it, I feel sick to my stomach, and I still push the thought from my mind any time it tries to pop up.
Showing: Even now, when I think about it, my stomach twists in those familiar knots, and I see only the darkness, with a bit of glow in front of me, the queuing ropes looming darkly, and my husband nowhere to be seen … at least not by me. It still terrifies me, and I cry when I again feel the utter helplessness, the humiliation and raw fear, sheer terror. Seven months out, I still push the thought from my mind when it tries to visit.
Maybe your showing passages won’t be incredibly detailed, but they do need to show the reader what’s happening. As you can see from the above examples, even short and simple text can show a lot of information.
If you think this is all a great idea but still aren’t quite sure how to go about showing instead of telling, you’ll want to read next week’s Editor’s Corner article, “Show and Tell: Settling in to Showing,” which walks you through a helpful practice exercise.