Friday, August 31, 2012

A Difference in Perception

Kindle or Print
Sometimes, even when you’re telling a story, it makes a difference whether you show or tell. The words the audience or reader receives have quite a different effect.
When the reader is told, she doesn’t form a picture or experience an emotion. She accepts the idea and moves on to the next idea. Here’s an example, rephrased from the real book as telling.
Abby heard footsteps but she didn’t see anyone.  She stopped. So did the footsteps. “Who’s there?” No one answered. She was scared. Her dog growled. Abby tried to open the door but it was locked.
Showing takes more words. There the writer or storyteller has to create a scene for the reader to see and experience along with the character. Here’s the same excerpt as Polly Iyer wrote it in her suspense novel, InSight.
She stopped. So did the footsteps. “Who’s there?” Still no answer. Why isn’t someone answering? The hairs on her arms stood erect, charged with electricity. She possessed an uncanny ability to feel another presence, as if all her nerve endings put out tiny sensors. Someone prowled the hall. Daisy emitted a low growl from the back of her throat. Pulse racing, Abby hurried to the side door and pushed against it. Locked. This door was never locked from the inside.
See the difference? Polly isn’t telling you how Abby felt, she’s showing you. You can feel the fear with Abby when the hairs raise, when her pulse races. You can push the door with her and find it doesn’t open.
Here’s an example from Cold Comfort, my suspense novel. I could have said Claire was exhausted and took a pain pill, but I wanted to create a picture.
The men continued to talk. Claire leaned against the car, imagining herself sliding off the fender like spaghetti off a plate, congealing into a lump on the ground. Those little white pills, on top of everything else, packed a wallop. The men droned on.
There are times when telling is the better choice. If it’s on something that isn’t important to the story, or it’s just a nice little vignette that doesn’t go anywhere, it may be better to tell it quickly and move on to something that moves the story forward.
How about you? Do you see the difference? Do the examples that show bring the scenes to life? How do you feel about it?  

7 comments:

Sandy Cody said...

Yes, there is quite a difference. The two examples you cite as showing actually put the reader in the story - something all writers want to do. I especially love the image of Claire feeling like spaghetti sliding off a plate.

Polly said...

For me, when writing a character, I want to be in his/her place. Blindness is something I can't fathom, so it was easy to show Abby's fear. It's my fear. Every step of the way for her was a step for me to live and translate. In order to "show," a writer must feel. When you make that translation, the right words will come.

Thanks for highlighting InSight, Ellis. Excuse the BSP, but it will be FREE on Amazon Sept 6-10.

Darla said...

Great examples. Oddly, maybe, I enjoy both when I'm reading. I don't necessarily have to be "in" the story and feeling it to appreciate the tale that is being shared.

Diana Douglas said...


I love your blog. It's informative, interesting & easy to read. I look forward to reading more!

Tom Rizzo said...

Good examples, Ellis, that reveal the power of showing. But not always easy. I think one of toughest challenges for a fiction writer is not to name, or identify, an emotion. The best approach, as you suggested is to show them (or their symptoms) in a dramatic way.

Ellis Vidler said...

Darla, I think you're right. Some things don't need to be shown. It's a judgment call, depending on what's happening in the story and what you want to convey to the reader.

Diana, thank you! That's so nice to hear.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, it's always a concern, whether a simile is too much, but I've felt like that. So I used it. :-)

Polly, fear has so many forms, it's often difficult to express. But you do it so well.

Tom, I find it hard to do, partly because I'm a fairly private person. That makes my characters want to keep it to themselves. I have to work at it.