Show Me Yours, and I’ll Show You Mine

For a couple semesters in college, I tried my hand at being a photographer.  I was average at best, but enthusiasm carried me through the classes.  Of all the things that I learned from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint, the critique sessions are what stick with me.

I have very clear memories of my professor standing in front of the far wall of the classroom where all the students’ assignments had been mounted.  He’d walk up to each photograph, hunch over to examine it, and scowl.  Then he’d invariably say the following, “You shouldn’t need a caption to tell me what it’s about.”

I think about that phrase all the time.

Maybe it’s because our defeats cut sharper memories than our victories.  Perhaps that’s why they motivate us so well, because they don’t easily fade.  I prefer to think that this particular memory endures because it was really great advice.  In essence, the professor was saying to any of us who were listening: show me, don’t tell me.

Especially in writing, showing is always preferable to telling.  It makes for a more well-rounded experience.  It adds depth to your characters and richness to your scenes.  Rather than tell me your character was an ill-tempered man, show him grumbling to himself about overpopulation and handouts as he elbows past orphans and elderly women on his way to purchase a fresh box of cigars.

Caricature of a man?  Maybe.  But he’s a lot more interesting than an “ill-tempered man” strolling along the sidewalks.

With characters, it’s all about showing who they are through their actions.  Some people, myself included, refer to these character defining actions as “tags.”  I’m a big believer in them.  For one, tags help the author get a clearer sense of who a character is and what his or her mannerisms are.  Secondly, character tags are a big help to the reader, especially if you’ll be dealing with a larger cast.  These tags help set vivid impressions for your reader, and as you continually hammer these tags over and over and over again, the serve as reminders about who is doing what and why.

Never leave anything up to the memory or deductive powers or your reader.  If readers had no trouble keeping things clear in their heads, there wouldn’t be a need for so many maps in the opening pages of fantasy novels.  If you think a character’s motivation might be unclear, assume that it is and clarify.  If you think there’s even a chance that certain story events are confusing, trash that section and try again.  But whatever changes you make, err on the side of showing events instead of telling us about them.  Go the extra step to create the deeper impression that will stay with the reader.

Showing events and characterization, as opposed to just telling them, is hard work, but it also benefits the author in the long run.  Having a better understanding of your story events and characters gives you a better shot of explaining it to your reader.  An informed reader is a happy reader, and if you can eliminate the confusion, they’re more likely to enjoy the show.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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