Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why do we “Show, Don’t Tell” in our writing?

Dear all,

Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas and New Year period. It’s great to be back into writing again with the holidays over. I’m looking forward to a productive writing year and I trust that you are too.

Please enjoy the following article on ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. It’s an important technique for writers to understand, as I know I’ve said so many times before.

Best Regards,
Robyn Opie

Why do we “Show, Don’t Tell” in our writing?

Last year, I was a judge involved in the PM Moon Publishers’ first annual writing contest. It was a great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed participating. Over a period of several months, I was asked to read numerous entries, all children’s stories of one sort or another, as PM Moon Publishers specializes in children’s and Young Adult fiction. There were some great stories amongst the entries that really stood out. They were different styles, genres and aimed at different age groups but they all had one thing in common. The authors knew how to “show, don’t tell”.

The first entry I read I had trouble putting down. I wanted to keep reading into the night and early hours of the morning. I couldn’t, of course, because a person needs to sleep. Nevertheless, I wanted to stay up until I’d finished the story. And when I did finish, a day or two later, I wanted to read the next installment. The entry was the first in a series, and I was ready for more. I needed more. My reactions were good signs and clearly the other judges had similar reactions because this entry went on to win the Grand Prize.

A few entries later, I sat in my lounge room reading a Young Adult story. Again, I wanted to read until I’d finished the story. I didn’t want to stop and, I’m not too proud to admit, this entry made me cry. It was an emotional journey I thoroughly enjoyed. The other judges must have had similar experiences because this entry won First Prize.

The entries that won Second Prize and Honorable Mention were also favorites of mine. In fact, the judges didn’t have much trouble agreeing on the top four entries. Our easy agreement was further proof that “show, don’t tell” is the key to winning contests and the hearts of readers.
If you want more proof, the entries I – and the other judges - enjoyed the least also had one thing in common. They were all “telling” and, too often, from the point of view of an adult narrator. Um, these are children’s stories. Why is an adult telling them?

Of course, I’m a big fan of “show, don’t tell”. I run a master-class on “show, don’t tell” and I also wrote an e-book on “show, don’t tell”. Still, I was pleased to have my thoughts validated by the contest. The winning entries were all “shown” from the main character’s point of view. The entries none of us considered as winners were all “told” and, too often, from the point of view of an adult narrator.

Why is “showing” from the main character’s point of view so important? Why are the best stories “shown and not told”?

The answers to these questions are easy if you look at my reactions to the winning entries in PM Moon Publishers’ first annual writing contest.

When a writer “shows” a story from the main character’s point of view, the story can be hard to put down. Readers experience the story, as if they are the main character, as if the story is happening to them. We see, hear, think and feel everything the main character does. Everything is “shown” to us so we can see, hear, think and feel everything.

The scenes in a book are like those in a movie, except we use the writer’s words to create the scenes in our minds through our imaginations. Therefore, our imaginations are engaged. We’re asked to participate because we’re not “told” things, we’re “shown” them and we have to use our imaginations to work out what is going on. “Showing” asks us to participate by using our imaginations and coming to our own conclusions about the writer’s words. We’re not being “told” by the writer. We’re being “shown” what is going on and we have to interpret the meaning ourselves.

Doesn’t this sound like real life? In real life, we see and hear scenes, and we have to interpret them ourselves. Most of us don’t have a narrator who “tells” us what is going on in our day to day lives.

When we interpret information ourselves, we bring our own experiences and personalities to a story. We add to the story and make it our own. We personalize it. We know how we’d feel in similar situations and we bring these thoughts and feelings to the story. Through this participation, we’re drawn or pulled into the story.

The most important thing that “showing” does is to make us care. Why do we care? Because we’re involved, we’re participating. When we’re involved and participating, then it matters to us. It makes a difference.

“Telling”, on the other hand, does not engage the imagination. We’re told something – a statement of fact – a foregone conclusion. We cannot see, hear, feel or think about the words. We cannot add to them. The writer has “told” us something. The writer has made the decision for us. There is no interpretation. No argument. No participation for readers. We’re kept outside the story, at a distance. And we have no choice but to accept what the writer says as gospel. But do we?

No. We like to make up our own minds. We like proof that we can understand. Why should we simply believe the writer?

Let’s look at an example: “He was scared”. Sorry, but this means nothing to me. So what? Who cares? I don’t feel anything. The word “scared” doesn’t make me scared. I can’t see, hear, think or feel anything. I’m not involved or participating. I can’t bring my own experiences and personality to these three words. I can’t relate. Besides, how do I know he was scared? What proof do I have? Am I supposed to just accept this?

Now, if I show this scene: “His heart raced, pounding against his chest, too loud when he was trying not to make a sound. It was important that he didn’t make a sound. The killer might hear him! He had to get away, he decided. But how? He looked around. God, he was hot, his skin clammy. If the killer didn’t kill him, his own body might, he realized. He had to calm down. His instincts told him to take a few deep breaths. But the killer might hear him, he reminded himself."

The above scene was off the top of my head, so please forgive me if it’s not my best writing. The point is that this “showing” scene involves readers. It gives readers a chance to interpret the words, to come to their own conclusions and, most importantly, to put themselves in the main character’s shoes. We can imagine how we’d feel in this situation. We can imagine what we’d do. We can experience the fear without being there, without being in danger. We can live vicariously through the character – and we do. We also believe in this fictional world. We have reasons to believe in the main character’s fear. We have proof! His physical and emotional reactions are proof. There’s no doubt that we’d feel similarly if in his position.

But “he was scared” doesn’t cut it. We can’t imagine it. For one thing, there isn’t enough information for us to engage our imaginations. “Scared” doesn’t mean much to us. But the emotions, thoughts and physical reactions of fear do. We’ve all experienced them at one time or another.

As a writer, one of your main purposes – if not the main one – is to elicit emotions in your readers. If you don’t, how can you expect your readers to care? Why should they keep reading your story or book? To elicit emotions, you need to engage your readers’ imaginations and therefore, their emotions. Just saying “he was scared” is not enough, not by a long shot.

So when you write, “show” your readers the emotions, the thoughts and the physical reactions. Let your readers experience them, too. Think about why we read – for escapism. And let your readers escape into your stories. “Show, don’t tell”.

Learn the principles of “show, don’t tell” and you, too, can win contests and the hearts of your readers.

For further information on my “show, don’t tell” masterclass or my e-book, please visit my website: www.robynopie.com/showdonttellstudypack.html

Robyn Opie is the author of more than 80 published children's books. She has been writing for children for over 10 years; most of her books are sold around the world and many have been translated into foreign languages. Robyn also writes for film and her family feature film, co-written with partner Rob Parnell, is in development with a US producer and director. To find out more about Robyn, her books and how to write for children, please visit her website: http://www.robynopie.com/


Penny Whitehouse said...

My heart pounded with excitement. I was on the the edge of my seat. My eyes came closer to the computer screen trying to absorb its cruicial information for regular future reference.

Thanks Robyn. Great post!

Penny Whitehouse

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this reminder, Robyn. It's something I struggle with as a nonfiction writer. Do you have any suggestions for those of us who are writing more fact-based pieces?