by Karen Ball
Recently, I’ve heard a few editors comment that they don’t worry about showing things in fiction, that they think editors and writers get too caught up showing when it’s really not all that important. Telling is okay. It’s just as strong and effective as showing.
I beg to differ.
Consider this from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a stellar book by Renni Browne and Dave King:
“Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did. Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants to accomplish, you’re well advised to rely heavily on immediate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.”
Well put. When you tell a story—relate the information in narrative summary—you don’t engage readers. But when you show…readers are captured, captivated, and drawn in. They have the vicarious, sensory experience your characters have–and they care about what’s happening. And in the caring, readers discover, learn, and are changed.
Therein lies the power of fiction.
I was reminded of this just last week, as I worked with a delightful writer acting as her writing coach. This author is crafting a collection of novelized stories about women in the Bible. She hopes to show contemporary women what they have to learn from these women “of old,” and to give them new eyes to see familiar stories.
Her first story? Bathsheba. The opening scene? When she steps out onto the roof to take her bath. It was a nice enough scene, one that gave readers interesting information on the cleansing rituals of the day and that let us know some about Bathsheba’s background. But it was a lot of telling. So I gave the writer a series of assignments and set her loose on the scene.
Well! Let me tell you, that opening scene has come ALIVE. As I read her rewrite, I was transported to that rooftop. I smelled the fragrant blossoms around and in the bath; luxuriated in the silky oils she rubbed into her hair and skin; studied the night sky, worrying with Bathsheba over her warrior husband, Uriah, who was out on the battlefield and not safe at home. I whispered with her the ritual prayers, and then was rocked, as was she, by the terrifying sensation that someone was out there, watching…
It was night and day, folks. The story was so much more emotive, so much more powerful, being shown rather than told. So I encourage you, don’t give up on doing the work. Yes, by all means, tell when it’s right. But when you want to transport your readers, when you want to immerse them in your story and characters, put in the time and effort to show.
Your readers will bless you for it.