When college students discuss their interpretations of a work of literature, their way of looking at it tells us more about them than the work; the work is a mirror, a blank slate onto which readers project their own ideas. This is what keeps the best literature endlessly fascinating. Twenty students can walk away from a seemingly straightforward event with twenty different conclusions. Even more interesting, these same readers may have a different take on the same piece of literature one year later. In that year, they will have read many other things, have been exposed to many new life experiences and have changed as people. Even more so after five years. It can be an entirely different book for them after twenty years away from it. Imagine 50. Moby Dick will have two different meanings if read at 20 and then again at 70. What all this shows is that books are as much about what readers bring to them; no matter how factual, there is no absolute reality–books are ultimately subjective. Great books, in order to remain exciting time and again, leave open this room for interpretation. One way writers can be sure their books remain exciting is to avoid the staid world of facts and instead to embrace the more expressive, more artistic world of showing.
The other problem with telling is that it makes a book read more like a synopsis than a work of art. With this type of writing, readers often walk away feeling as if they’ve read an outline of a story, a description of what’s supposed to happen, of what characters are supposed to be like; they don’t feel as if they’ve experienced any of it, walked in the characters’ shoes, cried or dodged bullets with them. True creative writing is an art form, like any other art form. Many would argue the main purpose of art is to dramatize, to give people an escape, a forum in which they can project, play out and satisfy their feelings. In order to do this, the reader must enter a world–he cannot have it described to him. Other art forms, like music and painting, force the artist to jump right in and create; but writing, perhaps more than other art forms, has a sly ability to allow its practitioners to dodge the artistic side. This may be because writing has so many inartistic (or less artistic) manifestations, from legal writing to business writing to official memos to textbooks, where the main priority is not artistic expression but the conveyance of facts. Of course, everything has its place: If it were your responsibility to write down the minutes to your weekly business meetings and you chose to dramatize these minutes, filling them with emotion, you’d probably get fired.
When you show instead of tell, where you used to have description, you will now have a scene. At first glance, this may seem to slow down the pace; after all, you had previously conveyed several major plot events in less than a page, and now it’s taken ten pages to “show” just the first of these events. Yes, on the one hand it does slow things down, especially in number of pages, but on the other hand, it speeds things up, because the pages that are read will be more enjoyable. Would you rather read ten fun pages or one tedious one?
You’ll learn quickly that your book would become weighed down with scenes if you were to “show” everything, and you’ll probably become more selective in deciding which facts to convey. You’ll have dramatization where before you had none, and a chief advantage is that, in the process–if done truly–you will learn new things about your characters and the turn of events. From your “showing” will emerge facts that can be useful in future telling.
But a book too heavy on showing can also be a danger–telling has its place. It can be particularly useful in establishing narrators and viewpoint characters, and extremely useful in the hands of a skilled writer who is aware of the fact that he is telling, but uses it to his advantage. For instance, if a narrator tells us something about another character, what he is really doing is giving us his perspective. This can be used with contrast and contradiction: If the narrator tells us character A is a really nice guy and character A enters the scene and his actions show he is a real jerk, what does this tell us about the narrator’s judgment? Or, if the narrator tells us he killed character A ten years ago and character A then enters the scene, we might infer the narrator’s a liar. Our mistrust of the narrator then becomes part of the game.
* The first step is to spot the areas in your manuscript where you tell when you should show. Likely areas are places where you use excessive description; where you introduce characters or places for the first time; where there is a flurry of events, a jump in time, or a bridge between major events; where you fill the reader in on backstory; and where you (or an editor) generally feel the manuscript to be too slow.
Looked at one way, nearly the whole manuscript can be filled with “problem areas.” You can take almost any piece of information and dramatize it. Deciding what you do and don’t want to dramatize is as much an art form as the dramatization. For now, don’t go overboard. Attack only blatant problem areas.
* Once you’ve chosen the section you’d like to dramatize, decide how you might go about doing so, and which angle you want to take. When it comes to dramatization, there are decisions within decisions. What is the most inherently, dramatic event? Which would make for the best scene? Which would fit best within the scope of the book?
* Replace information with action or events that serve the same purpose. For instance, instead of saying, “his wife was abusive,” show her hit him. Focus on cutting the dry, synopsis-like feel and replacing it with prose that will engage the reader.
* While you are convening your telling to showing, see if there is a way you can insert an element of ambiguity, mystery that wasn’t there before; leave a door open, if possible, for readers to come to their own conclusions. Take a simple event and consider all the different things it could mean to readers–maybe even to yourself. Things happen on many levels in a story, as they do in real life. Some people claim the subconscious mind does not differentiate from the conscious mind and subsequently they suggest that you can interpret baffling real-life events the same way you interpret events in a dream. What would they symbolize? Yes, there is the actuality of what really happened, but maybe there is also an underlying symbolism.