Show and Tell ~ Writers, Let’s Play :)   1 comment

Show and Tell ~ A Writing.Com Editorial

Remember back when you were a kid in school and you got to take something to school for ‘show and tell.’ You and some of your classmates sometimes had like items (a doll, a fire truck just like the one that rescued dad off the roof, skates, a Transformer, perhaps), but no two were the same. Because each had its own story, and you each shared it with your friends and classmates.

As we got older, we were taught to narrow our focus. We learned to respond to questions with succinct answers; to show what we knew, without telling how or why we knew it. Many of us, over time, perhaps forgot altogether to notice or seek the ‘why’ of things.
I submit that we, as writers, have an arrested development. We’ve not given up, or have recalled, the joy of searching, of questioning, and of sharing the journey behind the quest. We observe and explore, we imagine and postulate, then regale ourselves and our readers with the details of our journey. We do some ‘telling.’

Numerous “How To” writing books and articles instruct us to ‘show, don’t tell’ in order to keep our readers in the moment and grab their attention. When writing a chase scene, a gunfight, an alien to mortal brain transplant, yes, one needs to show the event unfold in real time to draw the reader viscerally into the story. But then, to hold your reader’s attention, to make him/her want to stay for a time in the ‘otherworld’ you’ve created, I think you have to tell him the why of the chase or gunfight. To turn a scene into a story, you want to make the reader care about the ‘why’ of it. You’ve shown your reader the cherished item, now tell him/her why it’s important or interesting.

As writers, one way we do this is with ‘backstory’. We know the details behind our characters’ actions; we know how the ‘snapshots’ derived from a sound or scent evolve to reach their full-screen resolution; we know what each of our characters does, looks like, thinks like, fears and hopes. We share with our readers only enough of this information to draw them into the story and make them understand why events are unfolding as they are, why characters act as they do, and make them want to know more. We don’t want to give them everything, they don’t need an information dump to distract them from the world we’re creating for them with our story or poem. Your reader doesn’t care, and doesn’t need to know, what each character had for breakfast (unless perhaps poison is involved). In my example above, the kids in class didn’t need to hear a distracting litany of the swear words dad used when his foot went through the old roof shingles. Those had nothing to do with the hook and ladder rescue; they didn’t move the story along. Telling them that would not have shown why the toy fire truck was interesting or special.

When the details are important; when they draw the reader further into the story; when they show the ‘why’ of things, then a writer has several ways to ‘tell’ readers.

There are several you can use as a writer to ‘tell’ your reader things about your characters, your idea, your ‘otherworld’; things that make him/her understand the why of things, and to make your reader empathize with a character, want to turn the page, join you for a time in the literary world you’ve created. But give no more than what’s necessary (no litany or information dump), that your reader can follow the story.

Flashback – on the one hand, answers a question you’ve posed for your readers; tells them something in response to action that’s taken place. It’s an effective way of weaving history into your ongoing story. For example, Mike will not consider living in a house without a basement, one without a foundation. He becomes again the five year old running for the door his grandpa held open against the storm. His grandpa stopped smiling as the oak hit the trailer, mashing it, and his grandpa, into the unyielding ground.

Backstory through dialogue – is a dynamic way of engaging your readers, and give depth to the characters themselves. Conversation among characters is an effective way of telling why they are taking one action over another, foreshadowing events to come by alluding to events in the characters’ past. It can be overt or subtle, proclaim deeds done or allude to the motive for what may occur.

Narrative – is another way that you can tell your readers something, either using your character’s voice or your own author’s omniscient voice. Your character can provide background, internal and external, for action taking place or perhaps yet to occur. Or, as the omniscient author, you can offer third-person narrative to explain the present by relating it to the past. “When we made the first campfire,” grandpa begins, “the bears came to feast, and where once we were four, by dawn we were three.”

Framing – is an effective way to give a ‘narrator’ (like ‘grandpa’ in my example above, depth of identity. Telling a story within the story, often recalling in first person events of the past, can give added relevance to events occurring in the opening story. Consider the cliche “Once upon a time,” and how the story that follows is framed by the opening and then resolved with a message, a lesson, a quip, or by somehow changing the actions or beliefs of the characters in the opening story = it’s a story within a story. Framing is also effective in explaining by action some tenets of a belief system or political or social mores. The characters in the original story are engaged with and changed by their encounter with the framed story.

So, don’t be afraid to show – and tell – your readers your story. Each of the above techniques can be effective, used judiciously, to add that flavor to your story that will make your readers want to know more, make them want to enter more deeply into your world built of words.

Try it!  Show a bit of your ‘otherworld’, and tell your readers just enough to make them want to stay awhile.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Writing.Com Editorial and wish you joy and success with your writing journey as you Write On!

(c) 2010 Kate Sender

Please feel free to visit and share the full text of the Writing.Com Short Story Newsletter, June 2, 2010, along with the journey of some of our members. 

I would also like to share one of my favorite resources here for exploring my short story writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, by Rust Hill.  If you have a guide you’d like to share, write back or post ~ until we next meet,  as we say at Writing.Com ~ Write On!!

Kate ~  Here’s the link. ^_^


One response to “Show and Tell ~ Writers, Let’s Play :)

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  1. Wow. Great stuff here!!!! Thanks for this.

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