One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had to overcome as a writer is learning how to show the story rather than tell it. Anyone can tell a story, but not everyone can make the reader feel like they are actually a part of the story. So how does one write in such a way as to bring the reader into the story? Let me start with showing you the difference between telling a story and showing a story.
The prince slipped the glass slipper onto Cinderella’s foot. It fit. The two smiled at one another and then hugged. They lived happily ever after.
Short and sweet but not very engaging, right? First of all, it happens too quickly. I could drag it out more by describing more of their actions. But ‘dragging’ a scene out isn’t what separates showing from telling. There is so much more to it. Here is my rewrite:
The glass slipper glided easily onto her foot, sending a shiver up her spine. This was happening, this was really happening. But would he recognize her in these rags? Would he be able to see her through the soot and grime on her face?
He raised his head. Her breath caught as his blue eyes locked onto hers. Goosebumps prickled across her arms. She smiled tentatively, hoping against hope.
His eyes twinkled and a grin spread across his handsome face. Warmth flooded through her and her eyes burned with tears. He remembered her.
But no. This had to be a dream. It couldn’t be real. She looked down at her soiled clothes. Her nose twitched at her own sour scent. There was no way he could love someone like her. She was just a servant, a simple nobody.
She squeezed her eyes shut and brought her dirty hands to her face. A piteous sob escaped her throat. Her chest heaved and hot tears pushed their way out.
The warm touch of his hands as he cupped them over hers magically settled her. She let her shaking hands fall and hesitantly opened her eyes.
His face was a handbreadth from hers. “It’s you.” The warmth of his sweet breath whispered across her lips. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” His fingers gently wrapped around hers.
Dream or no, she couldn’t resist the tenderness in his eyes. She let go of one of his hands and delicately brushed his cheek with the tips of her fingers. He was real. And somehow he still saw her in the same way he had on that enchanted night.
He enveloped her into a longing embrace and she melded into the strength of his passion. All the world around her disappeared. It was just him and her, lost together in a whirl of everlasting joy.
This rewrite showing is obviously much longer than the telling part. But perhaps it didn’t really seem like it because hopefully you felt like you were a part of the experience. As stated earlier, it’s not because it is longer that makes it more engaging. Here are some things that helped show the story:
Emotions – Cinderella shared her emotions. And she didn’t just tell the reader she was nervous, ashamed, or relieved. She showed her emotions with her actions, gestures, internal sensations, and internal thoughts. Actions, his blue eyes locked onto hers. Gestures, she delicately brushed his cheek with the tips of her fingers. Internal sensations, warmth flooded through her. Internal thoughts, she didn’t think this was real.
Other Senses – Cinderella doesn’t just tell us what happened. She shows us what she sees, smells, and what she feels both internally and externally. Engage your readers by trying to include two or more of the five senses – sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste.
Adjectives – Adjectives have a way of putting more feeling into nouns. They help to bring those nouns to life. Consider Cinderella’s piteous sob, sour scent, and dirty hands. Consider the prince’s warm touch, blue eyes, and sweet breath. Consider their enchanted night.
Conflict – Conflict somehow has a way of really engaging the reader. Conflict keeps the reader guessing and keeps them hoping for the best. It creates setbacks and gives heroes the opportunity to show who they really are. And it makes things more real. Although the Cinderella story is a fairy tale, I’ve made her more real by showing her internal conflict. In real life, a man and a woman don’t just fall into easy love without some sort of internal doubts. Conflict can be external as well as internal. After studying how to show a story rather than tell it, consider doing some research on the many ways you can add conflict.
Word Choices – Consider the words you’re using when you’re setting a scene and showing your story. Use words that support the emotions. Consider sharp words when there is strong negative emotion or lots of action, or soft words for slow-paced scenes or gentler emotions. When Cinderella looked down at her soiled clothes, hopefully the word ‘soiled’ helped convey her doubts about herself. When she delicately brushed the prince’s cheek with the tips of her fingers, hopefully the word ‘delicately’ showed how she was still uncertain but beginning to believe. When they hugged, hopefully the words ‘longing embrace’ conveyed how relieved both of them were to be together again. Somehow, I don’t see the words ‘strong hug’ doing the trick.
Sentence Lengths – The emotions of certain scenes can sometimes be conveyed better through the lengths of your sentences. Action scenes or other scenes meant to be fast paced can be written with one-syllable words and short choppy sentences. Longer sentences help slow the momentum of the story. Love doesn’t happen quickly so love scenes like the one above do better with longer sentences.
Don’t Overdo It – Sometimes, showing can get a little out of hand. I thought about adding more to Cinderella’s doubts by having her speak back to him and being more hesitant to believe this was real. But sometimes enough is just enough. You don’t want to bore your reader with too much detail. And you don’t want to dwell on one emotion for too long.
Telling Has Its Place – Sometimes telling is actually appropriate. Telling could be used to skim over boring parts that have no real value in the story other than to get your character from one place to another. An example would be if one of your characters just experienced an event and is now telling another person. Rather than go into dialog relating events the reader already knows about, the writer can tell the reader, “Jack told her everything in a rushed breath.”
But use telling very sparingly. There are better ways to transition a character. You can end the chapter at one scene and begin a new chapter in another scene. You can have your character thinking about something important as they move from one place to another. Or you can insert a sub plot so that something happens as the character is going from one place to another.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned about showing a story and engaging your reader. I hope I’ve covered all the points but if I’ve forgotten something, please feel free to add a comment or two.