What's "Telling" and What's Wrong With It?
Simply put, "telling" is telling the reader something. The country was in turmoil. My sister has no manners. Angela is a lunatic. Things like these need to be explained in the story, so what's wrong with just telling the reader?
1. Telling usually explains everything to the reader right off the bat. There are certain venues where you want people to explain things as simply as possible: when they're giving directions or explaining a calculus lesson; when you're on the phone with your neighbor who never stops talking and LOST starts in 30 seconds. But in fiction, telling is kind of like talking down to the reader; it doesn't give him/her any credit. At worst, repeated telling says to the audience I'm not entirely sure that you're capable of getting the point if I write it with any subtlety, so let me make it really simple. At best, it's a sign that you, as the author, are unsure of your own ability to make yourself understood without just stating it outright. Neither message is one you want to send.
2. Telling oftentimes interrupts the flow of the story. Consider one of the statements from above: Angela is a lunatic. If the author has to explain this in so many words, she has probably stopped telling the story to do so. When she's done, the story will commence, but in the meantime, the pace has halted, stopping the reader's attention along with it--something else you don't want to do if you can possibly help it.
3. Telling doesn't usually draw the reader into the story because telling is flat: it doesn't include details, emotion, or anything unique. Do you know someone who's a really good storyteller? My husband tells great stories; granted, they're usually embellished for effect, but that's what makes them great—lots of emotion and hand-waving, little details, a smattering of completely made-up vocabulary to give it his own personal flair. When he tells a story, people listen and can almost believe that the story's happening to them. This is what we want to achieve in our writing.
What's "Showing" and Why Is It Preferred?
The alternative to telling is showing. It's telling the reader what you want them to know in a way that pulls the reader in and is far more interesting than simply stating a fact. Showing usually gets more information across, too.
Example 1: (I've used examples from my writing in this post not because I'm convinced of my own literary genius, but because every book I own is packed and buried in the guest bedroom. I apologize in advance.)
· Nerien jerked upright in bed and reached out, but only felt crumpled blankets and the heave of his own chest. He fell back and groaned into his pillow. Why? Why did he always wake up before the dream ended? (showing)
In this example, I could have simply stated that Nerien was frustrated when he woke up. But saying it doesn't evoke that emotion; it merely states it. Instead, showing how he felt draws the readers in, helps them to feel the character's frustration instead of just reading about it. Showing is also usually more active and immediate.
· It was a noisy river. (telling)
· The sturdy stone bridge had no railing. Dara stood at the edge, watching the gentle Supine River turn crazy and wild where the river from Frost Berth joined it. It was particularly loud just below, where a branch had become tangled in the grasses near the pillars. The water gurgled and choked around it. Or was it the branch that was choking? Dara touched the soft scars that marred her upper arm. She felt a certain kinship with that branch. She was often choking these days, but it wasn't water that squeezed her. (showing)
As this example illustrates, 'showing' isn't a technique used only for emotion. It really could be used in all areas of description, from describing settings and characters to explaining relationship dynamics to strengthening dialogue.
Okay, so that's telling and showing. But how do you identify the telling parts of your story and show them instead? Since this post is getting a little long, these questions will be answered in part two, later this week.