Thursday, July 8, 2010

Showing Not Telling

On Monday, we had some friends over to hang out.  The kids were in our above ground pool that is only about three feet deep, and the adults played games at a table near by.  At one point I looked up and saw my 10 yr old daughter floating face down in the pool with her hair sprawled around her dancing in the ripples that lapped next to her.  I called her name thinking she was just faking.  He hands floated next to her body motionless but for the movement the water caused.  I called her again louder.  Still she floated not taking a breath.  By the time I called her name in terror a third time, my husband had made it to her side just in time for her to sit up and stare innocently at the faces gaping at her.  "What?" she said, "I was just looking at the bottom of the pool."  I can't describe the feelings and emotions that coarsed through me as I'd been watching her inert body floating motionless.  The feelings still come as that visual continues to haunt my mind.  Even though I know she is safe, I still feel the horror that gripped me everytime I see her in my mind's eye floating as if dead. 
My point is this, a visual picture is more potent than simply saying how our characters felt.  This is why showing and not telling is such an important element of writing.  But I'm not just talking about showing a character's emotions through actions so that the reader can see what the character is feeling.  I'm talking about those moments when we want the reader to actually experience the emotions the character is having.  We can't use this device wontonly, we must use is at the most intense parts of our story, the places where we need the most impact.  We have to choose to show those moments that will produce such strong emotions in the reader as to cause them to see it in their mind's eye long after they set the book down.  One way to do this is to slow down the pace as I did above to mimick how time stood still for me in that moment.  What other ways and tricks have you learned when it comes to showing not telling?


  1. Oh, Nikki, I'm sorry to hear that happened. That's sooo scary!!! :( I can see how you mean about giving the reader front-row experience of the MC's emotions.

    My way of showing and not telling runs a bit on the purple side--purple meaning flowery, like poetry. I am a poet at heart and what better way than to describe an emotion than using similes, metaphors and personification?

    I don't know. I hope that I don't bomb once my novel leaves my hands into the real world because of the way I write. :D

    Great post!!

  2. YIKES!! I think we would have had to call an ambulance for ME on that one. What a horrible thing to go through. Thank goodness she was okay.

    As for SHOWING, I totally agree. I've seen a lot of telling in some of the works I've critiqued and, even though I've tried to explain it to the authors, some just don't get it YET. It took me a while to learn, so I'm sure they will too. Great post.

  3. I'm still learning this skill. Everytime I think I get it, I come across another place in my writing where I'm blah-blah-blabbing away instead of showing. Thanks for the post & and example. And I very glad your daughter is ok!!



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