Techniques for Showing
Showing is reserved for the important parts of the story. Showing is the technique of using specific details to imply one or more underlying meanings. The advantage is that it’s very engaging for the audience, but over time it can prove tiring, as audiences struggle to understand the significance of the text.
Showing also requires more words to accurately convey the meaning, which means it can slows things down, depending on the length of your sentences. (Consider shorter sentences if you want a faster pace.) Then again, sometimes slowing things down can be a good thing. Audiences spend much of the story working towards a pivotal moment. Once audiences get there, it’s only natural to want to pause and savor the moment. Consider the following example from Hero of the Ages. (For those who have not yet read it, be aware that this is one of the climactic moments at the three-quarters mark.)
First we have the opening to Chapter 72.
“It began raining just before Vin reached Luthadel. A quiet, cold drizzle that wetted the night, but did not banish the mists…She landed on the city wall, bare feet slipping just slightly on the stones…Pockets of flame flared where buildings had caught fire. The flames defied the rain, illuminating the various slums and other neighborhoods like watch fires in the night. In their light, she could see that the city was a wreck. Entire swathes of the town had been torn apart, the buildings broken or burned. The streets were eerily vacant—nobody fought the fires, nobody huddled in the gutters. The capital, once home to hundreds of thousands, seemed empty. Wind blew through Vin’s rain-wetted hair and she felt a shiver…She was alone in the largest city in the world.”
200 words dedicated to what Vin sees as she looks out at Luthadel, the calm before the storm that has been building throughout Hero of the Ages.
Later, in Chapter 73, we savor Vin’s strength as she fights like no other.
“She cried out, slapping an Inqusitor to the side, then ducking a pair of axes. She crouched, then jumped, leaping in an arc through the rain, coming down beside Marsh, who still lay stunned from where she’d thrown him after her rebirth. He looked up, finally seeming to focus on her, then cursed and rolled away as Vin punched downward. Her fist shattered a cobblestone, throwing back a ripple of dark water, splashing her arms and face, leaving specks of black ash behind.”
This scene goes on for over 1,000 words, sharing every crisp detail of this cataclysmic fight with its audience. The story uses these details to linger, to draw out the moment that audiences have been waiting for, reading 120,000 words to get to it.
Big Picture-Using Show to Imply Multiple Scenes
Sometimes the same thing happens repeatedly, but the event itself still significant to the story. “He still smiled whenever she walked by.” “For the first time in years, she slept in.”
These are brief these are examples of showing. They actively engage audiences through their implications. “Who are these characters? What is their relationship?” As audiences read on they’ll learn more, developing theories about the characters, and their story. Here’s another example:
“Every day he went for a run, and every time his feet felt heavy, and his legs burned. Every breath felt like his last, as he struggled to take just one more step.” The details pull audiences right in, while the scene as a whole serves as an example of something the character goes through each day. What does it say about the character that they continue to run, despite the discomfort?
Small Picture-Using Show to Focus a Scene and Draw It Out
When people refer to “showing”, this is often what they are referring to; specific details that bring a single scene to life. These are the lavish descriptions and colorful figures of speech that create complex implications, encouraging audiences to read carefully. Showing can be used to focus on any aspect of the narrative: including plot/action, characters, setting, or underlying ideas.
Showing can focus on actions. “The car belched and rumbled as the engine sputtered to life.” “I swung at his head. He blocked, reaching for my wrist. I twisted out of his grasp, kicking a stool into his path. He knocked it to the side, coming at me with both arms raised.”
Showing can be used to reveal character. “Tears ran down my face.” “She held me close, never saying a word.” “Each step fell like a hammer.”
Showing can establish setting and tone. “Every surface gleamed with an immaculate light.” “Paint peeled in great flecks.” “Creaks and groans filled the air, coming from the old wooden pews, and their occupants.” “Steam rose up from the bubbling pot, filling the room with the sweet scent of tomato.”
Showing ideas is tricky. Often it’s accomplished indirectly, through character relationships or conflict outcomes, but ideas can be shown directly by focusing on a character’s thoughts, either through inner monologue, or through dialogue. Consider this excerpt from Ender’s Game:
“They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse. “Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.”
The audience sees how Ender’s thoughts lead him to the conclusion that he must continue to attack; that he must convince them that he is a monster, so that they will fear him, and never hurt him again.
Showing Your Audience
Showing is where the richest writing lies. Showing can be like a many-layered mosaic, waiting for audiences to uncover each layer of meaning. However, showing is also mentally taxing. Audiences have to carry each detail with them until they deduce the meaning. Sometimes they may have to read through the same lines several times before they understand. Eventually audiences need a break.
But part of good storytelling is captivating your audience with questions, most often “what’s going to happen next?” Audiences may want to keep reading, but the strain of carrying all those details makes it hard to continue.
This is why it’s good to alternate between showing and telling. Give audiences the chance to catch their breath, but keep reading, if they want to, and remember to create natural pauses in your story (line breaks and chapters) for those who need them.