by Annette Lyon
For years, I heard the "Show, Don't Tell" mantra and struggled to know exactly what it meant. I figured out pretty early that showing included using the five senses. I learned a few more techniques here and there (don't say she's sad; show her crying), but I still didn't fully grasp the concept until I heard A. E. Cannon speak at a writing workshop.
She talked about the revisions for her novel Charlotte's Rose and how her editor wanted her to show a particular character's personality better. Cannon insisted that she had shown it; we knew that Charlotte thought he was a mean, angry jerk (my words, but that's the gist), and we see Charlotte ruminating over his jerkiness as she's doing the laundry on the prairie.
Her editor suggested changing all that. Instead of telling us Charlotte's thoughts, have her interact with the man. We'd see her get hurt and angry, and then the reader, too, thinks he's a jerk because we just watched him be one.
That's how that section of the book was rewritten, by adding a showing scene. The man was shown to be a grouchy jerk, and the reader figured it out.
As I sat there listening to Cannon speak, a 1000-watt light bulb turned on in my head.
Prior to this, I'd thought of showing as something that belonged on the sentence or paragraph level. I could show by using a sound, a taste, a smell, a thought, an action. Sure, all of those things are important, and they are showing.
They're only half of the equation. They're what I now call micro showing. And showing goes much deeper than that.
What I learned at the workshop was that showing is something you can (and should) do on a much larger scale, using entire scenes or chapters. What I now call macro showing.
Since then, I've gone on to write and edit many, many more books, and I've applied that principle constantly.
Macro showing involves dropping lots of bread crumbs throughout the story, trusting that the reader will follow those crumbs and figure out what they mean.
Don't simply say that this is how it is. Imply. Hint. Leave clues. Add shadows of meaning for plot, setting, and character. It all adds up to great showing.
Put your characters into situations that reveal their personalities. Don't tell us that Sheena eats when she's stressed. Have a scene where she gets totally stressed out (because of great conflict). Then write another scene where she's drowning her stress in cheese fries and a bacon burger.
Don't tell us that Patrick is an overbearing boss and that Cynthia has no backbone. Throw them into the same room when Cynthia's trying to get a few days off to be with her dying mother but Patrick insists she has to stay to meet a deadline. Let them reveal who they are and what they really want through dialog.
If Emily really likes Steve, don't tell us she gets tongue-tied whenever he's around. Put them in the same room and have Steve talk to her. Run a mental movie camera so we see Emily trying to respond to Steve, but unable to form a coherent sentence. We'll figure out what it means.
Macro showing is now one of the most powerful tools in my writing and editing arsenal. Chances are, if I write "show" on an edit, this is what I mean: pull out the macro-showing hammer and go to work. Your story will come alive.