All new writers, and even old hands, get told – “Show, don’t tell”, but what does this mean exactly? Aren’t we storytellers? Telling is our job description- right? Yes we are storytellers, but if we want readers to stay interested in what we write our job is to engage their imaginations and we can only do that well when we show. Let me give you an example.
It was a lovely picnic spot. (telling)
The cliffs rose high on each side of the waterfall creating a cool, shady place in the middle where they sat down to have their picnic. (showing)
In the first one, the writer handed the reader the conclusion, leaving no work at all for the reader’s imagination. In the second example, the reader needs to take the bits of description provided by the writer and build the picture in her mind. The reader can feel that cool shade, can hear the water falling into the pool below, can imagine herself eating lunch in the shadow of the towering cliffs. That is showing. The writer paints the scene and then says, “Look! What do you think?”.
Showing is harder than telling and it is the work of all good writers. But don’t get me wrong, no story is all showing. The reader would become exhausted if every little detail was described. As a writer you will do some telling, but all crucial scenes need to be all about showing. Take your reader by the hand and bring them into your world and say, “Look!”, then make things happen.
How do you know if your novel or story has too much telling? Here are some clues:
1. Not enough dialogue
People are the building blocks of stories and people talk. If yours don’t you are spending too much time telling. Not to say all dialogue is showing. Occasionally writers want to get a big chunk of information across by using dialogue; in that case you’d have dialogue that is actually telling. But in most cases, good dialogue is showing.
2. No descriptions about setting
I’m not a fan of heavily descriptive settings, but you need to provide some ambience for your readers. If you have nothing, you are likely doing far too much telling. Put the reader in your scene: how does it feel? what do they see? what do they smell?
3. Vague writing
Showing requires specifics. If you are writing- “she had a happy life” that’s not really giving your reader anything. Describe her life. Use interesting, pinpoint, laser-sharp words. Don’t say her lips were red. Red can mean anything. Red can mean fire engine red. It can mean orangey red. It can mean rose. It can be the dull red of a wool jersey. Make sure your reader is not left wondering. Say her lips were rubies sparkling in the moonlight. Say her lips were like blood oozing from a wound. Get specific.
Writing with too much telling is boring. I especially see this in short stories. People want to put an entire life in a short story. It’s impossible if you must stop and show scenes, the short story would end up being far too long. So the writer packs the life in a word count of 5000 words by telling throughout and it is poke-your-eye-out-with-a-stick boring. One way to avoid that when writing short stories is to choose a specific event or time to write about, then show the reader, get specific. I am promising you by doing so your writing will pop and your reader will be very thankful.
Beauty and the Broker by Cheryl Ntumy
I’m so happy to see African writers embracing all genres, including romance. I think the African writing box that dictated we must write only what was political or serious or overly literary has passed. Now we can write everything and I, for one, think that’s wonderful.
Sapphire Press is an imprint of Kwela Books in South Africa. They are publishing romance novellas for a black, urban audience. They are fun and fast. They were initially only sold through True Love Book Club but now can be found in CNA bookstores, and they’re cheap, around P50. Beauty and the Broker by Cheryl Ntumy, a Gaborone based writer, is one of these books.
The story is about Melody Nyathi who works as a massage therapist in a fancy exclusive spa, but she’s ambitious and has plans of opening her own spa one day, a spa for ordinary women. When she’s not really looking, she meets Thabiso. He’s successful and handsome and Melody falls for him almost immediately. But even in the world of romance novellas, relationships are never perfect and Thabiso turns out to be pathologically jealous, so jealous he doesn’t even want Melody to do her job, he can’t seem to accept that she gives massages to men. This is a big problem for Melody and even though her family seems to have fallen head over heels for Thabiso, she has second thoughts if he is the right guy for her.
The book is well written with nice sensual scenes as well as a solid plot. There are twists and surprises too; I was so caught up in Melody’s life I read it in one sitting.