I have been writing a long time and consider myself a professional, having sold hundreds of articles and stories, but there is still something that at times eludes me. Although I recognize it in others’ work, I don’t always recognize it in my own.
There is a fine line between showing and telling in literary writing that at times crosses over into genre writing. This morning I had a break-through, one of many I’ve had over the years. It involves this very concept.
TELLING: The woman was taciturn as her husband stood talking to yet another stranger. She wanted to get home, not stand around in the store and gab.
SHOWING: Her lips were a thin coral line as she stood, arms crossed, while her husband chatted with a woman who was to her a stranger. He chattered and laughed, the woman laughing with him, while his wife stood off to the side, checking her watch and recrossing her arms, lips getting thinner by the minute and eyes hooded and dark.
Granted, the first example takes fewer words and says the same thing, but the second example imparts a sense of who this woman is and what she is like. It also tells you more about the man and how he responds – at least at first – to his wife’s irritation.
The advantage of showing versus telling is obviously word count, but that is not always the case. At times, showing can take fewer words than telling.
TELLING: He was tired and wanted nothing more than to drop into bed, turn up the heat, and pull the covers over his head.
SHOWING: Still wearing his coat and shoes, he drooped to the bed and burrowed into the mounded covers.
It all depends on the picture you wish to present. Telling and showing are the literary equivalent of a line drawing and an oil painting. A line drawing is an outline, a sketch of the scene or model. It is adequate in itself, but lacks depth and presence. When color and texture are added the subject comes alive, becomes more real. When the artist, or writer, are equal to the task, the images jump off the page, immersing the viewer, or reader, in the moment captured.
I do not doubt this aspect of writing will always be something I will have to continue to practice and relearn. The first stories we create we tell. As we experience more of writing and life, we evolve, adding details and textures, color and depth to the stories until they are as rich as the tales that unfold in the mind. That is what I strive to do, take the scenes and characters and stories I see in my mind’s eye and translate them to the page. It’s not an easy task, but it is well worth the effort.
Just as I learned first to draw and then to color and finally to paint with ability, so I will continue to refine my writing until it is at least as real for the reader as it is for me. There are no short cuts. Writing is an art that must be practiced and the skills honed until everything jumps off the page and brings the reader into an imaged world that delights, horrifies and becomes palpable real.