Story telling is a time-honored way of passing on information and wisdom to others, and has been used since ancient times by tribal clans and families as a method for sharing cultural traditions and customs with the next generation. Even some of the classic novels I read as a boy used the literary style of ‘telling’.
But when I came to write a book, I was advised by more experienced authors not to ‘tell’ the story, but rather to show it. At first, this was very confusing for me. Even the name of this unwritten rule for writers is vague. It could refer to various writing techniques. It may, for example, be a suggestion to use dialogue instead of exposition. Or it might mean to illustrate to the reader that a character felt happy, rather than simply state that the character was happy.
Furthermore, I had to ponder the reason for this way of writing. I asked myself,
“What’s wrong with simply stating that a character felt happy?” Only after seeing comparisons of paragraphs using the technique of ‘showing’ with paragraphs that used ‘telling’, could I see that ‘showing’ was more enjoyable for the reader.
Compare for example the following two paragraphs:
Tom opened the door to his apartment. As he walked into the kitchen, he saw the silhouette of a man sitting near the kitchen window. He immediately felt nervous. He didn’t know what to do.
Tom opened the door to his apartment. As he walked into the kitchen he suddenly stopped, startled to see the silhouette of a man sitting near the window. He took a quick breath as his heart began beating rapidly, and the first beads of perspiration broke out on his brow. He couldn’t decide between either running for the door or reaching to turn on the light, and so he remained still.
Both paragraphs begin the same way, but the former ‘tells’ the reader how Tom feels, whereas the latter ‘shows’ the reader how the character feels, by providing an image of his reaction. The reader now knows that Tom is nervous without having to be told by the author. It allows the reader to ‘see’ Tom first hand.
This technique of ‘showing’ also brings the reader closer to the characters, and lets them see for themselves the world in which the characters live. It helps readers to forget their own lives for a while, and to become lost in the story.
‘Telling’ however can sometimes break this illusion and bring the reader back to reality – a disappointment for anyone who likes to escape in a good book. It’s why many of us love reading novels in the first place. We like to forget our daily concerns for a while, and be absorbed in someone else’s trials or adventures.
Readers love to imagine being somewhere else, or someone else, or to envision someone else’s world. It’s why soap operas, human dramas and fantasy are such popular genres in both books and movies. People like to ‘connect’ with the characters, and the plights of others. ‘Telling’ can often reveal the author behind the story, and break that connection.
Occasionally a movie will have narration, hopefully by someone with as rich a voice as Morgan Freeman’s, but usually a movie is based on action and dialogue. A voice doesn’t ‘tell’ the audience the story, but rather the audience is ‘shown’ the story as it unfolds, with lots of dialogue to help the audience to better know the characters. Dialogue, or the absence of such, can make or break a movie.
The same goes for books. Rather than tell the reader what someone said, have the character actually say it. Again, while this is not practical one hundred percent of the time, when possible it makes for more compelling reading. Take this excerpt from Hideki’s Diary, ‘a book within a book’ in my upcoming debut novel, and compare how the same passage sounds with and without dialogue.
One night, after a month of non-stop duties, we both had the evening off to rest. We met in the Officers’ Tent for drinks. At that time, we were the only two officers there. I looked at my son the soldier, and my emotions betrayed me as tears brimmed in my eyes. Musashi’s face reddened upon seeing this and he busied himself pouring ‘sa-ke’ for us both.
I asked him to forgive my tears, as they were tears of pride for him, a true son of Japan. I pulled out my last two cigars from a pack that my captain had given me as a ‘sayonara’ gift. We raised our ‘sa-ke’ cups to Japan, and to the Emperor. As we smoked our cigars and boasted of Japanese victories in the Pacific, we talked of home and the future for Japan. Then I spoke of the Yakuza, and Musashi listened.
One night, after a month of non-stop duties, we both had the evening off to rest. We met in the Officers’ Tent for drinks. At that time, we were the only two officers there. I looked at my son the soldier, and my emotions betrayed me as tears brimmed in my eyes. Musashi’s face reddened upon seeing this, and he busied himself pouring ‘sa-ke’ for us both.
“Please forgive my tears, but they are tears of pride for my son, a true son of Japan.” I pulled out my last two cigars from a pack that my captain had given me as a ‘sayonara’ gift. We raised our ‘sa-ke’ cups.
“To Japan,” we said, “and to the Emperor!” We smoked our cigars and continued talking.
“Japan has done very well so far, don’t you think?” I asked.
“Yes, father. We have conquered many countries, and shown our enemies that we cannot be beaten. We surprised the Americans at Pearl Harbor, and defeated the British and the Australians. We even made General MacArthur flee the Philippines.”
“Yes, Japan has had many glorious victories in the Pacific.” I paused. “But we’ve had some terrible losses recently, too, especially in the Coral Sea and at Midway. The allies are regrouping, son, and it will be a tough battle ahead.”
“How is home, father?” Musashi asked after a moment’s silence.
“Mother is well, and people are doing what they can to support the war.”
“What lays ahead for Japan?”
“I don’t know, son. If we win, we will go home, and our Emperor will reign, victorious. If we… don’t win… we will survive somehow. And now that you are a grown man, and a war-hardened soldier, you will join me and become Yakuza! Let me teach you what Noboru Yamaguchi and Kazuo ‘the Bear’ Taoka taught me. Together we will rule the streets and form an empire for many years to come.”
I think it’s fair to say that the second passage with its use of dialogue is more interesting for the reader than simply being told what the characters said.
Of course an author can’t always use ‘showing’ or only use dialogue, or it would look more like a screenplay than a novel. Sometimes ‘telling’ is necessary, and there will be occasions when ‘showing’ is simply not practical or possible.
However, when ‘telling’ is used, it must be done in such an imperceptible and unobtrusive way so as to not alert the reader to the author’s presence. There can be no ‘authorial intrusion’, or once again, the magic bubble in which the story and the characters exist is broken.
When describing a scene in your book, try to focus on the action, dialogue, and ‘show’ what the characters are feeling. I hope this helps with your writing. Learning this lesson has certainly assisted me in my own writing.
See you on the shelf!