COMMUNITY LEARNING HUB: ONLINE MODULES
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2.5 SHOW VERSUS TELL
Lots of readers tell not show the backstory, as if it’s an action film where the backstory is summed up by a baritone voice over: “In a galaxy far far away, a young alien boy was born to a family of humans…”
Don’t dump the backstory into one paragraph. Not only can it get boring, but that’s not how you discover someone’s backstory in real life. You don’t meet them and they instantly monologue their life to you.
Introduce your characters in the same way you are introduced to real people – through discovering their backstory through what they do, what they say and how how they react to people, events and actions. This way there will be more action, dynamism, and emotion.
Express the PAST through PRESENT ACTION.
Setting is another story aspect that writers tend to info-dump through telling rather than showing. This creates a static, two-dimensional setting that the story has to pause for.
The setting should be intertwined with the action of the story to maintain the pace.
Your character should interact with their setting – even better, the setting could be a character in itself. By linking character and setting, you create a more emotional dept to the setting, and how the character interacts with their surroundings can also tell us something about the character themselves.
We all react to our surroundings differently, and it all depends on our own personalities. A person who loves the countryside will react differently to a city to a person who hates the countryside: the city to a country person will seem busy, loud, dirty; to the person who loves the city, it will seem full of life, culture, things to see.
Establishing your character first will help you bring your setting or settings to life, because your character’s personality will shape your description of the setting (particularly in first person narrative).
Our surroundings can also have deep meaning for us, and be connected to our lives and backstory. Is the setting somewhere your character is deeply familiar with? Is it totally new? Did it used to be familiar, but now it isn’t? Does the setting change as the character changes, because their perspective is different?
Setting can also be a source of conflict for your character, and can also reflect the emotions of your character through pathetic fallacy e.g. a storm can mirror your character’s anger.
Giving your setting as much thought as your characters can bring the story to life.
Emotion is different to each person, so it’s important as much as possible to show emotion instead of telling it. There are different types of anger, different levels of it. It can affect people mentally and physically in different ways.
Describe how the emotion is affecting your character – however, choose the right moment in the story. You don’t want to constantly slow down the pace of the story through lengthy story description. Sometimes “she got angry” is enough, if this anger isn’t particularly significant to the story. Pace is everything, as is keeping your reader engaged.
Strike a balance between showing and telling. Telling is more removed but covers narrative ground far quicker.
Dialogue is a good way to show instead of tell.
Showing doesn’t mean revealing every single minute detail, or evoking every single emotion or sense. You can still leave things to the imagination.
REMEMBER: The younger your audience gets, the less patient they’re going to be for endless paragraphs of showing. They’re there for the story. Maintain the pace through more paragraphs of ‘telling’ and let their imagination fill in the blanks
Showing tells us more about the character’s experiences.