Many thanks to Jenny Turner for stopping by my blog today! Jenny is not only a wonderful friend and an amazing author she is also the head of Quake, the YA division of Echelon Press. Please enjoy her excellent post and don’t forget we’d love to hear from you so feel free to leave a comment! Happy Writing!
There is one word that simplifies the whole show vs. tell debate circulating in writing groups across the webiverse. This one impish little five letter word is the key to understanding the difference between showing and telling.
To imply is to show something without stating the obvious. There are all sorts of methods one can use to imply. I liken these to the most basic type of cons: the short con and the long con. In the short con, you’re simply exploiting the moment. In the long con, you’re building toward a much bigger end game.
The short con:
These are great for setting atmosphere, character development, and connecting with the reader. In the two examples below, I show how the same action can convey very different meanings and characters:
She turned the knob, her palm slipping with sweat. The sun beat down, hot and dry as the porch creaked beneath her boots. The dust of an approaching car painted the back of her tongue with grit. He was coming.
She twisted the knob so hard, she nearly yanked it off. The sun whitewashed the weathered boards beneath her boots. The familiar red truck came in a dust cloud that blew sand into her mega grin, but she didn’t care. He was coming.
Notice how in one she seems concerned and in the other she’s happy. Neither emotion would be shown if I simply wrote: She opened the door and went out on the porch to wait for him. The trick was to imply the action and use emotion to inform my word choices.
The long con:
This is where a lot of authors struggle. Foreshadowing is not something that comes naturally to most people. There’s a lot of decisions to be made, and then sustained, to have the desired effect—just as in a long con. In a long con, a person will insinuate themselves into their mark’s life and play them, usually for a big pay off in the end.
When showing in the long con, you’ll need to really know your character. Let’s take a very well known film, The Color Purple starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie. She has the great misfortune to be married to Albert (played by Danny Glover) who beats her and treats her terribly. For most of the movie, Celie is submissive and missing her younger sister Nettie, until she uncovers Albert’s devastating secret nearly 30 years after the beginning of the movie.
The pay off is huge, however, as Celie is called to shave Albert with a straight razor on the porch. The emotion of that moment is amazing and Spielberg, the director, played the audience like a piano. We are enthralled by the question: Will she cut his throat, or won’t she?
Understanding how to imply in a long con is very important. The key is knowing what is at stake for the character, and then threatening those stakes.
A final note about Telling:
Sometimes, especially in transitions, telling is very important. The trick to telling well is to use the character’s language and thoughts. Take this example of telling from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. To get the reader caught up on what happened in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he has this transition written from Finn’s perspective:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.”
Notice how he uses the boy’s voice to lend the telling a sense of story. Often this is easier done in first person, even if you’re writing in third. I suggest authors take a segment they’re struggling with and let the character share it in first person. Many times this will help the writer reconnect with their character and get just that right sense of flavor to make the story move forward.
If you’d like to try a fun exercise, give this a whirl. Above I implied a woman opened a door and walked out onto a porch. Using “imply” change the following to “showing” what is being told:
The plane landed and he rushed to the front of the crowd, flowers in hand.
Thanks so much for letting me share with you today. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. Or if you’d like to post your version of “showing” in the comments, I’d love to read them.
Jen, thanks bunches for having me here!
Award-winning author J.R. Turner lives in Central Wisconsin with her husband and three children. She began writing in high school, and after a decade working as a commercial artist, started her first novel in 1999. Aside from crafts, camping and cooking, she loves holidays. A favorite is Halloween, a combination of spooky supernatural fun and chocolate. Visit http://jennifer-turner.com for more information.