Remember that song from My Fair Lady?
That’s the song I force myself to focus on when I’m writing. Because, honestly, if I had my druthers, I’d rather tell. It’s so much easier.
But when I try to “show” the reader, what’s my first instinct? To rely on clichés.
And, sadly, our readers are no different than Eliza Doolittle in this respect. They don’t want to read a story, they want to experience it. And the best way to accomplish this is by evoking emotion.
I know. Easier said than done. Still, we writers have a toolbox. And if we forage around in it, we’ll find a very powerful tool. It is the one Eliza is so adamant about: Let’s see some action!
A great example of this can be found in Jane Yolen’s, Sleeping Ugly. It’s a children’s book about a princess who is pretty on the outside and ugly on the inside. Watch how Yolen uses a show-don’t-tell technique to convey the princess’s inner qualities.
TELLING: Princess Miserella was mean.
SHOWING: Princess Miserella liked stepping on dogs. She kicked kittens. She threw pies in the cook’s face. And she never—not even once—said thank you or please.
Don’t you just love that? Showing is so much more powerful because it causes feelings within us to bubble up. That is our character’s single most important function: To cause the reader to feel.
When I read about a princess who steps on dogs and kicks kittens, it calls up feelings of hostility and outrage. It is so unheroic that I take an immediate dislike to her.
Now, let’s have a look at Plain Jane (who is plain on the outside, but pretty on the inside). In this scene, Jane has earned three wishes from the fairy godmother and Princess Miserella is none too happy about it:
After reading this, my heart immediately went awwwww. I like this girl. I like her a lot and I’m going to root for her the entire rest of the book.
I hesitate to break this down even further, but the truth is, we’re trying to get our readers to judge our characters. I know. Not exactly a friendly mission, but there it is. And neither you nor I can restrain ourselves. When we read a passage presented in the right way, we pronounce judgment on that character and, if the author is very skillful, the passage will draw a physical response from us. The whole reason we laugh, cry, tense up, swoon, bite our nails, or feel our pulse began to race is because the author has engaged us. The author has wielded her show-don’t-tell tool and evoked our emotions.
Like all rules, there needs to be a balance. If we attempt to maintain a high level of emotion all the way through the book, the reader will be too exhausted to enjoy it. So, balance the peaks with some quiet valleys. But even in a restful state, we have feelings.
Deeanne Gist—known to her family, friends, and fans as Dee—has rocketed up the
bestseller lists and captivated readers everywhere with her original historical and
contemporary romances. A favorite among readers and reviewers alike, her popular titles
include A Bride Most Begrudging, A Bride in the Bargain, and Maid to Match. Her latest
book, It Happened at the Fair (releasing April 2013), is her ninth published novel.
A popular speaker, Gist’s presentations have been featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and in other publications. The Wall Street Journal’s accompanying online video was the
most watched video on the FrontPageWSJ.com website for several days following their feature.
Family Fun, Houston Chronicle and Orlando Sentinel. She is also the creator of I Did It!®, a parenting
line of products. Gist lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of thirty years. The couple has four grown