After I got hit over the head with it enough times, I understood the concept. The author must envelop the reader in the story, fill his senses with setting, character, emotions, action and everything else. In effect, the author must make it possible for the Reader to forget both that they are the Reader, and the fact that they’re reading a story.
Sounds simple enough.
Ha! Personally, I think that part of writing can be almost as difficult as the infamous Agent search. However, it can also be the most rewarding. And if it’s done well, the Reader goes away with an image in their head, something they’ll remember.
In order for an author to Show, not Tell, they must allow their thoughts to be completely “at one” with their writing. Throw in all those techniques and tools we writers are always talking about: metaphors, similes, dialogue, etc. For me it’s kind of a zen thing. While your fingers are flying and your mind is racing along with the action, it’s easy to try to keep up by writing something like,
She ran into the forest, needing to escape. That, my friends, is Telling.
If I really take my time and sink into the scene, I am able to Show.
The pounding of her feet was background to her laboured gasps; her heartbeat raced. The trees closed on her like wolves around an injured deer, their gnarled branches clawing and scraping her sweat-soaked skin. The air was heavy, wet from the storm, and slippery, twisted roots jutted up to grasp at her exhausted feet. Escape jeered from far away. <-------- Goal
You may not like my example. Actually, I’m not convinced either. Could be overdone. But let’s consider it anyway. What are the differences between the two examples?
Basic nouns and verbs
Few or no adjectives and adverbs
Metaphors: Can you see the wolves/trees? Can you sense the menace?
Other devices such as Personification (of the trees and roots, and even of escape)
Covers senses such as: Touch (clawing and scraping), smell (the heavy air), emotion (panic)
Paints clear, precise images: describes details about trees, background on weather and conditions on the ground, location (faraway) of her goal.
On the other hand,
too much Showing can destroy a piece. Too many descriptive words, listing unimportant facts and features ...
In my opinion, there are basically three ways to describe one thing.
The first is Telling.
The cowboy was blond and looked good. <-------- Avoid
The second is what I call a “shopping list”.
He had blond hair that hung to his shoulders and it was messy. He wore a red, green and black plaid flannel shirt that was so old it needed to be patched. It had a square pocket on the left side. His silver belt buckle was large and not very shiny. It was the shape of a wild, bucking bronco with a cowboy on top. <-------- Avoid
The third is to Show.
Long, golden blond waves, tousled by indifference, tickled the solid slope of his shoulders. He’d tucked in one side of his flannel shirt, leaving the other to hang carelessly over his thigh. A tarnished silver buckle winked from behind the worn material. <-------- Goal
Another technique is to throw in a little dialogue. Everyone wants to hear dialogue anyway.
The office manager stormed into her office and demanded coffee. <----- Avoid
Her head jerked up as the office manager stormed into her office and slammed the door behind him. “I want coffee, and I want it now,” he demanded. <-------- Goal
So ... Show, don’t tell:
1. Use effective, descriptive nouns and verbs, adding necessary adjectives and adverbs whenever needed. Don’t overdo it.
2. Cover as many senses as possible: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste, intuition
3. Use writing techniques like personification, metaphors, etc
4. Don’t list things, describe them. And only bother with the ones that matter.
5. Paint clear, concise images that will swallow up the Reader.
Here. Try this. I’ll get you started, and you make this into something memorable ...
The editor hoped her advice helped.