Kara sat in class slouched over. She frequently glanced at the clock, counting down until when the period would be over. She doodled in her marble notebook and planned out her weekend. The school’s art fair was on Saturday, and she was excited to present her newest paintings. After English class, she’d speak to Mrs. Roberts, the art director, about what her plans were.
Asking the class a question, the English teacher turned to Kara.
“What about you? What literary term do you think the author was using here?” He said stopping in front of her desk.
“Uh–” she responded. “Um, what was the question again?”
I don’t care what you say…
And your readers do not either. From the example above it’s obvious Kara is bored and not paying attention in class. We can assume she’d much rather be illustrating the story than writing it. The snippet doesn’t state this specifically, but we can conclude this. That’s because it shows the reader how Kara is conducting in class.
It’s a much more interesting approach than the following:
Kara sat in class bored. She couldn’t wait until it was over. While Mr. Davidson taught, she zoned out into her own world of art. She loved to paint, and prefered to immerse herself in oils and acrylics instead of figuring out language. Mr. Davidon asked her a question during the lesson, but she was unable to answer.
Showing is interesting
Remember in kindergarden when you had show-and-tell? Well, it was much more interesting to your classmates to see how that cool toy of yours worked versus telling them without a demonstration.
In literature, it works the same. Showing a reader through stories, dialogue, and other creative measures provides for a better story.
Showing is sneaky
A good journalist knows to best display the facts–and be objective–you cannot tell people what happened. You have to show them.
It isn’t enough to write in the paper the man was “armed and dangerous,” and police are still trying to find him. Instead, a journalist often will write: “Video survillance cameras outside XYZ Business identified a man with a .9mm gun as he robbed two teens on E. Main St.” If the journalist knows how the suspect escaped–such as on a skateboard–they’ll include those details too, rather than saying, “he got away.”
Yes, these details are important to be aware of, but it is also a more convincing read. The journalist doesn’t have to say he’s dangerous. Telling that he approached two civillians–who were teenagers–with a gun says it enough. The reader can form their own opinion without feeling the writer imposed one upon them.
So, if you want to be a sneaky writer in describing your characters, show your readers the stories. Describe what you want them to know. They are smart enough to form their own opinion and “get the message.”
Should you ever tell? Yes, don’t always be sneaky
For nonfiction writers showing doesn’t always work. There are exceptions. In a memoir or autobiography you’ll have to tell your reader what happened, and what it means for you in some instances. Journalists will have to state the hard facts, and tell what’s most important.
Telling is also used when you can’t forgo specific facts, but need to move quickly through them. Maybe it’s necessary to know you went to the suit shoppe, because that’s where you met said-person, but we don’t need to know all the details of where it was and what happened there.
Much of the craft in showing and telling is about finding the right balance. With practice, you’ll learn how to use which technique. When you can show–and it’s best to–let us see it; but, if you need to just tell the story, please, do tell.