The Wonderful Art of Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

Nonfiction is always at its best when telling the reader something. There’s a distinct role and need for it. If travelers need to find out the best routes through Northern England and Scotland for a driving vacation, they will research a respectable source of good data on the subject. Likewise, if a couple really believes that the impossible is possible, they will seek out instructions on How to Build a Brick Barbecue Grill in One Weekend. These books excel at telling: they provide information alone. (I’ll confide with my readers that the book about barbecue grills should be considered fiction. Please don’t ask.)

By contrast, fiction, from word choices to structure to themes, is supposed to show the Reader what’s happening. Writing teachers even have a mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” Yes, just like in kindergarten.

The first I in F-I-C-T-I-O-N stands for Illustrate. Well-written fiction allows us to visualize. Whether it’s the lush beauty of Colorado as pioneers moved westward or the dust and flies on a Civil War battlefield or the barren rocky terrain of a planet somewhere in space or the endless blinding expanse of the Sahara, with fiction we can see places we’ve never been or revisit places we know and love. It’s a heady gift and a huge responsibility for the Writer. We paint the world for our Readers with words, words so evocative that the place we create on paper is what they will see, with some special goodies included.

However, here’s a little trick we use. Unless our main characters are in the habit of giving a catalogue-like description, including lists of clothing, when we illustrate, we illustrate just enough, but not too much. There’s a fine art to balancing. How much should the writer illustrate? When does it become telling, instead of showing? We illustrate just enough, so that the Reader will visualize what he needs, knowing he will use his imagination to fill in the rest. Yes, I guess that we cheat, but it’s a deliberate, clever cheating.

I is for imagination. This is not only for the Writers’ use, but it’s a gift lying dormant, what well-written fiction awakens in the Reader. Readers usually don’t realize that the best writing actually causes them to use their imagination, most of the time. The good novelist is constantly manipulating the Reader, (with his consent, of course). When the Reader picks up a book, he is already prepared to trust the Writer and has willingly offered to share his powers of imagination with that Writer.

There is a physiological and psychological pleasure in using imagination. The human brain is happiest when using information and possibilities placed before it to create something new. In the case of writing, it’s along the lines of what the writer intended, yet each reader will come up with something slightly different. Imagine, just for a moment, that no one has ever seen the movie Gone with the Wind. From the opening lines of her book, here is Margaret Mitchell’s description of Scarlett O’Hara:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful …. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a sharp oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils, and mittens against the hot Georgia suns.

Mitchell has given her character some distinctive traits, yet all of us—anyone who has seen the movie even once—will immediately picture the actress Vivian Leigh, despite the differences. When one image is fixed in our minds, our imagination is by-passed and locked out. A bit of recommendation: “always read the book before you see the movie,” no matter the story.

The pleasures of imagination exist because they “hijack” certain parts of our minds that have evolved for real world pleasure. In Romance novels, titillating descriptions of sexual interludes and romantic scenes are often more enjoyable than extremely detailed and graphic accounts. Each type of writing arouses and stimulates, but each is activated by, as well as in, a different part of the brain.

Imagination is “Reality-Lite,” a handy, useful substitute when the real pleasure or experience is inaccessible, too risky and dangerous, too much work, or too costly. An adventure in 18th century Scotland becomes possible either as a historical novel or a time-travel historical adventure (the early Outlander-series books of Diana Gabaldon, for example).

Compelling features about the human imagination. Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, fictional or fictionalized events can be more moving than real ones. A novel can span birth to death and can show how a character behaves in situations that we could never otherwise observe. In reality, we can never truly know what another person is thinking. In a novel, the writer can show you and share with you. A well-written novel provides  psychic intimacy.

Humans have invented many ways of creating surrogates of pleasant and dramatic real-world experiences, which explains the popularity of all stories in general. Reading exercises the pleasures of the imagination that are parasitic on the pleasures of real life. Psychologists consider the ability to imagine a requirement for positive mental health, something to be nurtured in children and adults. Unfortunately, Readers of nonfiction usually are most comfortable without using imagination as they read. Fiction  helps us explore and learn about solutions to true dilemmas, exercising our social capacities and allowing us to think about what goes on in the minds of others. Stories give us a chance to consider the consequences of real-world events and possibilities—intriguing “what-if” scenarios.

For the Reader: What word-pictures have awakened your imagination? Of the books you’ve read recently, which had memorable pieces of narrative? What you’re noticing is that Writer’s style, as he uses words to manipulate your vision of characters and setting, his power to illustrate.

For the Writer: A good novel can take the Reader beyond reality and into the minds of others. Are you allowing the Reader’s imagination room to expand? Have you worked magic with your words, showing “just enough”? Or are you tempted to tell the reader all you know? Are you giving your Readers the richness of pleasure and vicarious experience through your story?

Stop by The Writers’ Table next week for more on the Wonderful Art of F-I-C-T-I-O-N—C is for so much. See which you can guess. If you missed the “G-Rated F-Words,” click on those blog titles. Your comments, questions, and input are always welcome.