You should always show, not tell!
“But, Mr. Berger, why can’t I just tell the reader, ‘John is angry’ if he is? How will the reader know otherwise?”
Students in my high school writing guild ask me this every year, in one form or another, and I always reply with, “You should always show, not tell, the reader what you want him or her to see.” Writing a story, I tell them, has more to do with creative, colorful mental images in the readers’ mind, not satisfying our own need to make sure readers know everything we want them to see. This is not about being in control—it’s about relinquishing control. Yes, that’s exactly what I said. Writers are not in control of their work, the reader is.
Describing behavior in conjunction with the setting opens the door for the reader to make the connections between the two, generating stronger emotions and attitudes. Just because the writer pictures a situation one way doesn’t mean the reader would, and readers tend to make connections with the text in ways they already know: that’s where the reader/writer bond comes from. We write as they think or completely opposite from it, so they connect.
I don’t know about other people, but I people-watch. I sit at Starbucks or the café at Barnes & Noble and observe people, although not in that creepy “I want to follow you home” sort of way, I promise. Seeing people act or speak tells me more about what they feel, and the key—I’ve found—is just to write that. Going back to my student’s question, if I wanted to express John’s anger, saying that ‘John is angry’ deprives my reader of what anger looks like. Not everyone acts the same way. Some people are violent, others pensive. Some are sarcastic; others become obsessive. Here’s how I might do this:
“After pulling into the garage, John turned the car off and just sat for a moment, his hands holding the steering wheel but his arms limp, as if he didn’t want to separate from the car to accept the reality of the phone call he’d just had with his wife. A few deep breaths later, he went into the house, headed directly for the kitchen, pouring himself a shot of Jameson. Then, another. His eyes bounced around the living room, catching on the picture of his wedding on the fireplace mantle. As he held the frame, his finger traced the expression of his wife Janice’s face, a gentle smile surfacing on his. Remembering the phone call, he kissed the glass, and then flung the picture into the fireplace. Lighting the fire, he watched the wooden frame singe and then char, the glass popping from the heat. Every other picture of Janice met the same fate, as did that black dress she had worn when he proposed and the Red Sox t-shirt she had adopted from his closet.”
The reader knows how John feels without one emotional adjective. While writers can capture emotion in many ways, showing how characters behave lets readers picture the car, the house, and the roaring fireplace in the scene above in the context of their own thoughts. No one even has to know what Janice said to him, but one could surmise as much.
Perception lies in the mind of the beholder—that’s why readers keep going back for more. The next time you’re at Starbucks, watch the customers. You get much more than a latte.
- David Berger -
David Berger is a recently published independent author, although he has been writing for almost 30 years.
Find out more about David Berger and his Book - Fantasy Adventure Task Force: Gaea - Finding Balance in this Article on Indie Author News about the Book and Video Interview with David Berger >>> Link to the Article
Links to the Author
Link to David Berger's Website (Task Force: Gaea)
Connect with David Berger on Twitter: @MrDBerger
Link to David Berger's Task Force: Gaea - Finding Balance