The first time a critique partner scrawled these words on page after page of my chapter, I went, uh? I was clueless as to what she was referring to. As a self-taught writer, I knew that descriptive pros drew a reader in, but the journey from telling readers what’s happening to showing them has been bumpy but satisfying. Telling is unimaginative and boring. Showing engages the senses, makes readers visualize a scene and allow them to draw their own conclusion.
So how can you tell when you’re telling instead of showing? Lets start with a simple sentence.
My husband flirted with the waitress.
This sentence gets straight to the point and tells you what is going on. It is bland. It doesn’t engage the imagination or evoke any emotion. In fact, the writer leaves everything to the reader. Instead of wanting to read more, a reader is left wondering what the husband did for the narrator to draw this conclusion, how the waitress reacted and how the narrator felt.
The waitress leaned forward to pick up the empty plates, and deliberately thrust her chest too close to my husband’s face. He stared at the tight T-shirt barely covering her large breasts then said something. The woman’s high-pitched giggle filled the room. As she walked past him to serve the next table, my husband turned and watched her walk away.
Now this version is a bit more descriptive you must admit. A reader can visualize the scene and become engaged…maybe. Yes, there’s a bit of showing, but the passage is still impersonal. Something is missing. Why should you as a reader care about what the waitress is doing when the narrator doesn’t seem to?
The woman flung her platinum blonde stresses away from her face as she leaned toward my husband. Her black, ruffled skirt short rode high on her thighs, her boobs threatening to pop out of her red snug top. She fluttered her fake lashes as she talked, her hand lingering on his arm. I clenched and unclenched my fist when he leaned forward and pretended to read the writing on her T-shirt. He was checking out her enviable double-Ds, the letch. I crossed my arms over my less noteworthy chest. As though to mock me, he whispered something to her and she giggled, the high-pitched sound grating on my already frayed nerves. He turned and whistled as she walked to the next table with an exaggerated sway of her generous hips.
Okay, this passage may be wordy, but you see what I’m getting at. It is ripe with emotions. It is descriptive. We now know more about the waitress, what she wore, how she looked and the exchange between her and the narrator’s husband. But above all, we know about the narrator’s take on the scene. There’s pain as she watches the waitress and her husband, and a glimpse of her insecurities about her breast size. The entire passage is personal and raw with emotions. A reader is left with questions and the need to learn more. What is the narrator going to do after this scene? What is going to happen to her marriage? Maybe you wish she could get up, walk to the husband’s table and slap him upside down.
So there’s my take on showing versus telling. Stimulate the readers with descriptions and throw in a dose of emotions, and taa-daa!