You ever have one of those moments when you just ‘get’ something? When you fully understand something that was previously a novelty to you? Some people call it an epiphany. Oprah calls it an ‘A-ha moment’. I had one while reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.
Both my editor and fellow writer/beta reader Ann Fields gave me this advice as part of their feedback for my first novel: show the story, don’t just tell it. I struggled to understand exactly what this meant. The phrase ‘show vs tell’ is thrown around in the writing community all willy-nilly and it’s pretty difficult to explain what it actually means.
She’s Come Undone is the best example of mastering show vs tell that I’ve ever read. The book somehow conveys that Delores is an obese, largely ignored, sexually repressed, sarcastically humorous, intelligent, scared girl. The writer doesn’t tell us this. He shows us by creating scenes in which other characters react to Delores, by giving us insight into her thought processes, by sharing her responses to outside stimuli.
Lamb’s style is dramatic, sensual and visual. We’re not told that Delores is cynical and prone to highlighting other people’s flaws. We’re shown it in the way she notices someone’s rounded belly, stained teeth or oily skin. Delores doesn’t simply take a swim with her father. We’re right there with her feeling the warmth of the pool, seeing the hazy colors of life underwater, experiencing a little girl’s crush for her father.
Reading She’s Come Undone made something click in the part of my brain that couldn’t quite grasp the difference between telling a story and showing a story unfolding. I think it’s important to have a balance between the two, but practicing the skill of showing will make me a much better writer.
The biggest takeaway for me is to not write down to readers. Trust their intelligence enough to believe that they’ll get the point. Relinquish enough creative control to leave room for various interpretations. Because really, that’s what art is.
I’d love to read more books by authors that have mastered the show vs tell balancing act, so if you have suggestions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below. Special thanks to Kate Loveton for suggesting She’s Come Undone to me! I haven’t finished it yet, so no spoilers please. :)
As a writer, have you struggled with show vs. tell? How did you work through it? Here’s a great article on the show vs. tell debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!